KEY POINTS

  • Turkey and Syria move closer to the brink of war as their clashes intensify in contested Idlib province
  • Turkey bombards Syrian Arab Army units after an airstrike killed 34 of its men
  • Erdogan has vowed to launch a military operation to expel Syrian government forces

The Turkish Army Friday launched heavy artillery bombardments and airstrikes against the Syrian Arab Army and its allies in Idlib province in Syria after a devastating bombing attack attributed to the Syrian Arab Air Force Thursday killed 34 of its men.

"Known targets of the regime have come and will continue to come under fire from the air and ground," announced Fahrettin Altun, communications director of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The retaliatory attacks were not directed against any Russian military force.

Turkey's retaliation came after its discussions with NATO about their joint response to airstrike apparently staged by the Syrian Arab Air Force in Idlib Thursday that killed up to 34 soldiers of the Turkish Army and wounded many more, some severely. Warplanes of the Russian Air Force, however, have also attacked targets in Idlib.

The airstrikes blasted Turkish forces at the Ballion observation post located at Jabal al-Zawiya (or Mount Zawiya). Several Turkish military vehicles were also destroyed. Turkey said the jets bombed the Turkish observation post in the area between the towns Baluon and Al-Bara south of Idlib city. This position is one of 12 Turkish built by the Turkish Army over a year ago as part of a de-escalation agreement with Russia.

The aircraft first attacked a Turkish military convoy en route to resupply the outpost on Thursday. The jets then bombed the outpost itself, said Abu Yahya, a senior official of the Turkish-backed Syrian fighting force in Idlib province, the New York Times reported.

Turkey is a member of NATO although that relationship has been strained by Erdogan's outreach to Russia. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which created NATO, commits each member state to consider an armed attack against one member state, in Europe or North America, to be an armed attack against them all. It's been invoked only once in NATO history: by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2011 Al Qaeda attacks in the U.S.

Military analysts surmise Turkey might be considering invoking Article V. Turkish media said foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by phone with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg about the deadly escalation, which Turkey blames on the Syrian Arab Army, and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Turkey is admitting to the deaths of 22 of its soldiers while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) places the death toll at 34.

Syrian army soldiers were deployed towards the Turkish border after US troops withdrew Syrian army soldiers were deployed towards the Turkish border after US troops withdrew Photo: SANA / -

Syrian and Russian warplanes are spearheading the ongoing Idlib offensive by the Syrian Arab Army aimed at conquering Idlib province, the last province still controlled by anti-Assad rebel forces.

Publicly, Turkish officials claim the deadly airstrike was carried out by Syrian government forces, but privately admit Russian jets launched most of the airstrikes in the area in recent weeks. Russian has not commented on the allegation its aircraft killed the Turkish soldiers.

Attacks on Turkish forces in northern Syria are straining the already dangerous relationship between Turkey, Syria and Russia. Erdogan has vowed to launch a military operation to expel Syrian government forces if they refuse to retreat from a line of Turkish observations posts by the end of February. The deadly attack Thursday occurred along this line of contested outposts.

On February 10, Syrian government forces shelled a newly-built Turkish observation post at the Taftanaz Military Airbase killing five Turkish soldiers, said Turkey's Defense Ministry. On February 3, Syrian and Turkish forces exchanged fire at Idlib, Latakia and northern Aleppo. Turkey reported the deaths of seven of its soldiers and one civilian contractor. There are claims 13 Syrian soldiers were killed.

Al Jazeera reports the next few days might see Turkey "take an aggressive role and ask the European Union and NATO, in particular, to take a very strong stance when it comes to what is happening now in Idlib."