Tensions escalate as 34 Turkish soldiers killed in airstrikes by Syrian forces backed by Russia

Apart from aiding anti-Assad forces, Turkey has decided it will no longer guard its northern borders, thus allowing thousands of Syrian refugees to enter Europe

In a major escalation of tensions in an already volatile region, as many as 34 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian government forces in north-western Syria. The airstrikes backed by Russia were carried out on Thursday (Feb. 27) evening, around Idlib, the only Syrian town under control of rebel forces.

At least 34 Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian forces

Idlib, Syria
Idlib, Syria's only town still under rebel control Google Maps

"There are critically wounded [soldiers following the attack], and they are being treated at hospitals," Rahmi Dogan, the governor of Turkey's Hatay province, told Anadolu Agency.

Turkey's Defense Minister Minister Hulusi went to the Turkey-Syria border following a security meeting convened by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg but the topic of discussion wasn't disclosed.

Why are Syrian government forces attacking Turkish interests?

Idlib, in north-western Syria, close to the Syrian-Turkish border, is the last Syrian territory under rebel control, backed by Turkey. Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, backed by Russia, is trying to regain control of it.

However, a September 2018 agreement between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Idlib a "demilitarized zone", thus halting the Syrian government's offensive against the rebel-held region.

Turkey has called for the Syrian government forces to pull back from positions where Turkey has set up military observation posts. This has been rejected by both Syria and Russia. Russia has also accused Turkey of aiding rebel groups active in the region in violation of the 2018 ceasefire agreement.

How would Turkey retaliate?

Although Erdogan has threatened to mount a military offensive against Syrian forces, there hasn't been any sign of that happening. Rather, it is stepping up its military support to rebel fighters, indirectly trying to push back Syrian forces.

There is another major threat looming over Europe. Turkey has decided to halt guarding its northern border and will not stop Syrian refugees from entering Europe, Reuters reported. Turkish police, coast guard and border security officials have been ordered to stand down, according to a Turkish official.

Due to the prolonged war in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees took shelter in Syria. According to some estimates, some 3.66 million Syrian refugees are living in Turkey.