Duvar English / Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Feb. 12 Turkish military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground “anywhere” in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of northwestern Idlib province from rebels.

“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdoğan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.

“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara.

Erdoğan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end this month and that Ankara would not allow rebels in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.

Erdoğan’s remarks came after five Turkish troops were killed and five injured in an attack by Syrian forces in Idlib on Feb. 10, following a similar attack last week killing seven soldiers and a civilian contractor working with the Turkish military.

Thousands of civilians meanwhile were heading north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery barrages by the Russian-supported government forces.

Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias have been advancing in Idlib in a campaign to destroy the last bastion of insurgents fighting for past nine years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, in the biggest single wave of displacement of the conflict, leaving them desperate for shelter amid atrocious weather conditions.

Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.

This month Ankara – which has the second-largest army in NATO – has poured some 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to its deal with Ankara on Syria but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib unacceptable.

“The Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” he told reporters. “These groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities.”

The Turkish military casualties have sparked some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made millions refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey.

Ankara says it cannot handle another wave of refugees.

Damascus and Moscow say the attacks are targeting hardline Islamist militants who control Idlib. Turkey says they are hitting civilians.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan agreed in a phone call on Feb. 12 the sides would continue contacts on Syria, the Kremlin said.

“The importance was noted of the full implementation of existing Russian-Turkish agreements,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

Erdoğan said he discussed with Putin the issue of the Turkish casualties.