Turkey downs Syrian fighter jet in northwest Idlib

AP , Tuesday 3 Mar 2020

Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet in Syria's Idlib province Tuesday, marking the third such incident in as many days, as steady clashes between the two national armies continued over a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive near the Turkish border.

State-run Syrian media said troops shot down a Turkish drone, keeping up a clash in the skies over the northwestern province that has gone on for days and signaled a new stage in the 9-year-old war.

Ahead of a much-anticipated summit later this week between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, the two main power brokers in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov again laid the blame for the escalation squarely on Turkey.

Russian officials have said they hold Turkey responsible for the collapse of a cease-fire agreement reached in Sochi, Russia in 2018, saying Ankara had not held up its end to rein in militants who continued attacking Syrian and Russian targets.

``The solution to the problem lies in implementing the (Sochi) agreements. They are not being implemented,'' Lavrov said after meeting with his Finnish colleague Pekka Haavisto in Helsinki on Tuesday. He expressed hope that the scheduled Thursday meeting between Russian and Turkish presidents in Moscow will change the situation.

Keeping up the pressure on the battlefield, Turkey's military downed a warplane belonging to Syrian government forces _ the third time they have done so since Sunday.

The Syrian military said Turkish forces targeted a warplane with a missile as it was carrying out operations against ``terrorist groups'' in the rebel-held Idlib region, causing it to crash northwest of the town of Maaret al-Numan. The fate of the crew was not clear.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops into Idlib to support the opposition fighters holed up there, but hasn't been able to roll back the government's advance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he hopes to broker a cease-fire in Syria later this week when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

But the Russian-backed offensive into the country's last rebel-held area has led to increasingly frequent clashes between the Syrian and Turkish armies that have killed dozens on both sides. It has also threatened a collapse in Turkish cooperation with Moscow, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

A Turkish soldier was killed and another wounded Monday night, Turkey's Defense Ministry said, raising to 55 the number of Turkish losses this month in clashes with Russian-backed Syrian forces.

The death toll includes 33 Turkish soldiers killed Thursday in a single airstrike.

The government's offensive has also sparked one of the Syrian war's worst humanitarian crises. Almost a million Syrian civilians have fled north toward the sealed Turkish border, overwhelming camps already crowded above capacity.

Tensions in Idlib rose following the Syrian strike that killed the 33 Turkish soldiers. Turkey responded with drone attacks and shelling that killed more than 90 Syrian troops and allied gunmen.

Outraged by the assault against its forces in Syria, Turkey has opened its western borders for thousands of migrants and refugees wanting to cross into Europe, triggering a rush on the land and sea frontiers with Greece.

It is Ankara's latest bid to pressure the European Union to help handle the fallout from the disastrous Syrian war. Turkey, which hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees from the war, was an early supporter of the rebels who sought to topple Assad after an uprising against his rule erupted in March 2011.

Lavrov said Moscow fully understands the severity of the migrant issue and what it means for the European Union.

``We're engaged in a dialogue with the EU on this issue but we cannot stop fighting terrorism to solve the refugee problem, even though we are constantly being called upon to do so.''

Idlib, home to more than 3 million civilians, is dominated by al-Qaida-linked factions, but Russia and the Syrian government label all opposition to Assad as ``terrorist.''

Meanwhile, the US Representative to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, announced the US would provide an additional $108 million in humanitarian assistance for Syrians in response to the crisis. Craft, who traveled to Turkey's border with Syria, said the funds would provide food, shelter, clothing and other material for people in Syria and the region.

``While money will help address urgent needs, it not the answer,`` Craft said.

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