Ankara responds to Damascus: 19 Syrian soldiers killed. No end to refugee emergency

The Turks launch "Spring Shiel" operation in response to the offensive by the Syrian military in the northeast. A Damascus military base and a convoy hit. Syria closes airspace in the Idlib region. 13 thousand people massed in terrible conditions on the border between Greece and Turkey, including women and children.


Damascus (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Ankara has launched a massive cross-border military offensive in northwestern Syria against President Bashar al-Assad's army.

The operation kicked off yesterday and is a response to the attacks of Damascus soldiers in the previous days, which inflicted heavy losses among the ranks of Turkish allies of the rebel (and jihadist) groups that control Idlib.

Analysts and experts point out that, for the first time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have declared open war on Assad, while ensuring that he does not want to clash with the Russian forces (ally of Damascus), present on the ground.

The Turkish defense minister stressed that "the 'Spring Shield' operation is proceeding successfully" and is a response to the "vile attack" of February 27 in Idlib, the last Syrian stronghold still in the hands of the opposition and fundamentalist Islamic militias. The offensive "will continue", he added, "we don’t intend to confront Russia".

According to reports from the British-based NGO Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a drone attack launched by Turkey yesterday led to the killing of at least 19 Syrian soldiers. A military convoy to a Syrian army base was also targeted. Also yesterday Ankara shot down two enemy fighter jets.

In response, the Syrian army closed the airspace with drone aircraft on the north-western part of the country, with particular reference to the Idlib area. "Any aircraft that violates our airspace - reports the military command of Damascus - will be treated as hostile and must be shot down". The forces of the "Turkish regime", concludes the Syrian communiqué, continue "to carry out hostile acts against our armed forces".

Moscow warns that it cannot guarantee the security of Turkish planes in Syrian airspace. And in a context of growing tensions, Erdogan is expected to meet Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin next week in an attempt to find an agreement to stem the violent drift of the conflict.

In the background, the refugee crisis is becoming increasingly serious, which Ankara threatens to bring to Europe if there is no joint intervention to stop the Damascus offensive towards Idlib. The situation worries international NGOs and human rights activist groups, who denounce up to a million people fleeing the violence.

The condition of the civilian population was again the focus of a public appeal by Pope Francis, who yesterday expressed "sadness" over the situation of the civilians and refugees who are being rejected. In all likelihood, he was referring to what is happening in Turkey and Greece.

Numbers and news coming from the border testify to an alarming situation. According to the World Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 13 thousand people, including women and children, amassed on the border and forced to live in unspeakable conditions. The Athens government reports that in the last 24 hours it has repelled about 10 thousand migrants, who were attempting to cross the border illegally.

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