Turkey has raised the death toll from a Syrian government airstrike on its forces in northwestern Syria the previous night to 33 Turkish troops, the highest number of Turkish soldiers killed in a single day since Ankara first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016.
The deaths, which came in an attack late Thursday, mark a serious escalation in the direct conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has been waged since early February. The earlier reported death toll was 29 troops.
Ambassadors from NATO countries are holding emergency talks this Friday at the request of Turkey, who is a member of the alliance.
Turkey is a main backer of the Syrian opposition while Russia has been giving military support to the Syrian government offensive in Idlib that has displaced about 950,000 people and left hundreds of civilians dead.
Russian frigates redeployed to Syria
Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry claims the Turkish troops that came under fire in Idlib were deployed among “terrorist battle formations.” The Turkish troops were in the area of Behun, and according to coordinates given to Russia’s Reconciliation Center in Syria, “there were no Turkish military units in the area … and there weren’t supposed to be” there.
Meanwhile, two Russian frigates carrying cruise missiles have reportedly been deployed to Syria. Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich of the Black Sea Fleet are currently en route to the Syrian coast with Kalibr cruise missiles on board. Both warships previously took part in Russia’s offensive in Syria.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, carried a report saying Turkey has acknowledged its forces were killed “in operations of the Syrian Arab Army against a terrorist organization.”
It added that Syrian troops at the time were repelling attacks by “terrorist groups backed by Turkey.”
U.N. secretary-general has reiterated his call for an immediate cease-fire and expressed serious concern about the risk to civilians from escalating military actions,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
“Without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour,” he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a six-hour emergency security meeting in Ankara late on Thursday. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone.
The airstrike comes after a Russian delegation spent two days in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials on the situation in Idlib, where a Syrian government offensive has sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border.
The offensive has also engulfed many of the 12 military observation posts Turkey has in Idlib.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe.
Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.