This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Turkey’s defense minister said on March 1 that his country was “successfully” continuing its military operation in northwestern Syria against the Russian-backed regime in Damascus and that Ankara doesn’t have “the desire or intention to clash with Russia.”
Within hours of that statement, reports from Syria claimed that Turkish forces had downed Syrian warplanes as concerns mounted of an escalation of direct clashes between NATO member Turkey and forces of Russian ally Syria.
Turkish military forces announced an intensification of their campaign via Operation Spring Shield after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian air strike in the Idlib region, where Russian air power has been used to help forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Following the heinous attack on February 27 in Idlib, Operation Spring Shield successfully continues,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted by AFP as saying via state news agency Anadolu, adding, “We don’t have the desire or intention to clash with Russia.”
Idlib is part of the last remaining Syrian territory held by Turkey-backed rebels.
Later on March 1, after Syria’s government said it was closing the airspace in the northwestern part of the country, Damascus alleged that Turkey had “targeted” two of its jets over Syrian airspace.
A rebel group and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the two planes had been “downed.”
Syria’s official news agency, SANA, said the four pilots ejected and landed safely.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whose country is a NATO member — said on February 29 that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone conversation that Moscow should stand aside in Syria to let Turkey deal with Syrian government forces.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the same day that the two sides had agreed to reduce tensions while continuing military actions there.
Erdogan reportedly also spoke with other world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Russia’s state news agency Sputnik said on March 1 that the head of its Turkey operations had been “taken into custody” by police in Istanbul.
RT and Sputnik chief editor Margarita Simonyan claimed the organization had been unable to contact employees in Ankara after attacks by “rioters” who were trying to break into their apartments.
That information could not immediately be confirmed.
Turkey had responded to the death of dozens of its troops in the air strike this week in Syria with deadly bombardments of its own in the Idlib region.
Syrian and Russian warplanes on February 29 kept up air strikes on the Idlib city of Saraqeb, the Syrian Observatory war monitor reported. The city is located on a key highway that has been a flash point of fighting in recent days.
Turkey on February 29 heaped pressure on the international community to confront anew the flow of migrants from war-torn Syria, with President Erdogan announcing an “open door” policy that would not prevent migrants on Turkish territory from continuing on toward the European Union.
That sparked a flood of attempts at illegal crossings into Greece and possibly Bulgaria that put the EU’s border authority, Frontex, on “high alert” on March 1.