Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war.
Turkey and Russia, which have come closer than ever to direct confrontation in Syria in recent days, traded threats over air space after Turkish forces shot down two Syrian government warplanes and struck a military airport.
Fighting has escalated dramatically in recent days in northwest Syria, where Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military vehicles in the last month to counter Syrian government forces’ advances in the last remaining bastion held by rebels.
A million people have been displaced since December near Turkey’s southern border, causing what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in nine years of war.
A Syrian state television correspondent in the town of Saraqeb said the army was combing the town after the retreat of Turkey-backed rebels. Rebel sources said clashes were continuing in western parts of the town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said rebels were trying to regain control.
Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to rebel-held Idlib city to the west.
Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers. Turkey’s Defence Ministry said one of its soldiers was killed and another wounded in shelling by Syrian government forces in Idlib on Monday.
Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria’s nine-year civil war, stepped up its intervention in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week, the deadliest strike against the Turkish army in decades.
On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.
“The (Syrian) regime’s human and equipment losses are just the beginning,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “If they do not withdraw to the borders Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders.”
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had so far destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defence systems.