Turkey shoots down two Syria warplanes in escalating offensive

Raziye Akkoc, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 02 2020 01:24 AM

Members of Syria's opposition "National Liberation Front" fire heavy artillery guns at government forces in the village of Talhiyeh near the town Taftanaz in northeastern Idlib province, from another position on Feb. 28, 2020. Abdulwajed Haj Esteifi, AFP

ANKARA - Turkey shot down two Syrian warplanes on Sunday in an escalating offensive against the Damascus regime as Ankara pressured Europe over the conflict by opening its border for migrants to cross into the continent.

Following weeks of violence in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, Turkey confirmed a full military operation against Russian-backed Syrian forces after dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed last week in an airstrike blamed on Damascus.

Tensions have intensified between Russia and Turkey -- who back opposing forces in the Syria's civil war -- but Ankara has insisted it does not want to clash directly with Moscow.

"One anti-aircraft system that shot down one of our armed drones and two other anti-aircraft systems have been destroyed, and two SU-24 regime planes that were attacking our aircraft have been downed," Turkey's defense ministry said in a statement.

Syrian state media said Turkish forces "targeted" two of its planes over Idlib. A rebel group and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, both said the planes had been downed.

The situation in rebel-held Idlib was already volatile as the regime supported by Russian air power pressed an assault on the region in a bid to retake the last opposition enclave in a nine-year civil war.

The confrontation between the Russia-backed Syrian forces and NATO-member Turkey, which supports Syrian rebels, has prompted worries over a wider conflict and a migrant crisis in Europe similar to 2015.

Migrant numbers have already surged along the rugged frontier after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to pressure the EU over Syria, said the country had "opened the doors" to Europe.

Greece said Sunday it has blocked nearly 10,000 migrants at its border with Turkey.

As migrant boats continued to land on Greek islands, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced "operation 'Spring Shield'" for the first time, adding it "successfully continues" after the attack last week killed 34 Turkish troops.

Turkish forces hit Syrian regime positions after Erdogan warned Damascus would "pay a price" for the airstrike.

Under a 2018 deal with Russia meant to bring calm to Idlib, Turkey has 12 observation posts in Syria -- but several have come under fire from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Turkey wants the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where Islamist fighters backed by Ankara pose the biggest obstacle to Damascus seizing back control over all of Syria.

SANA Syrian state media reported the regime shot down a Turkish drone near the town of Saraqeb, publishing footage of an aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames. Those images could not be immediately confirmed.

But Turkish defense ministry confirmed one of its drones was shot down.

Earlier on Sunday, Istanbul police detained the editor-in-chief of the Turkish version of Russia's Sputnik website as its offices were being searched in Istanbul.

Three of its journalists were also taken to a courthouse in Ankara for questioning, likely related to a Sputnik article in English claiming Turkey's Hatay province was "stolen" from Syria. Colonial power France ceded the southern region to Turkey in 1938.

The news website later said they had been released.

Turkish media reported on Sunday that Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Moscow on March 5. They already spoke by telephone last week when both expressed "concern" over the escalation.

The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers also spoke by telephone on Sunday, Moscow's ministry said, to discuss preparations for the meeting between the two leaders, and the safety of the Sputnik journalists.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said he "hoped" the meeting would be on Thursday or Friday.

"It will undoubtedly be a difficult meeting, but the leaders confirmed their wish to resolve the situation in Idlib. It's important," Peskov said on Sunday.

Some 13,000 migrants have amassed at the Turkey-Greece border, including families with young children who spent the night in the cold, the International Organization for Migration said.

An estimated additional 2,000 migrants arrived at the Pazarkule border gate Sunday, including Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, according to an AFP reporter.

But as the crowds rushed to enter Europe, Greek police and soldiers blocked 9,972 "illegal entrances" from entering the northeastern Evros region in the past 24 hours, a Greek government source said.

The UN refugee agency spokesman Babar Baloch called for "calm and easing of tensions on the border," as he urged countries to "refrain from the use of excessive and disproportionate force".

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Saturday said the EU was watching "with concern" and stood ready to deploy its Frontex border guard agency.

The developments recalled events in 2015 when over a million migrants fled to Europe, mainly via Greece in what became the continent's worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

The EU's commissioner for migration, Margaritis Schinas, tweeted Sunday he had requested an extraordinary meeting of EU interior ministers to discuss the situation.

Erdogan said Turkey, home to some 3.6 million refugees, did not plan to close the borders because "the (EU) should keep its promises".

He was referring to the 2016 deal with Brussels to stop the flow of refugees in exchange for billions of euros.