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Turkey Launches Deadly Airstrikes Against Syrian Forces

ISTANBUL — Turkey deployed F-16 fighter jets against government forces in northwestern Syria on Monday, a sharp escalation of the conflict there after six Turkish soldiers were killed by artillery strikes.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that as many as 35 Syrian troops had been “neutralized.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said the number of military personnel killed was at least 13, while state news media in Syria made no mention of any deaths. There were also reports on social media of at least eight civilian deaths when a minibus was struck.

Mr. Erdogan warned Russia, which backs the Syrian government and which controls the airspace in western Syria, not to prevent Turkey from retaliating.

“It should be out of discussion to block us,” Mr. Erdogan said, before leaving for a trip to Ukraine. Describing the dead Turkish soldiers as martyrs, he added that, “It is not possible for us to keep silent” as long as his country’s troops were being targeted.

Mr. Erdogan has frequently met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to discuss Syria, and in particular, the thorny problem of Idlib Province, which Moscow wants to bring under Syrian government control to declare victory in the war.

In a sign of the fragility of the relationship and of the high stakes, Mr. Erdogan adopted a sober demeanor as he announced the Turkish casualties, despite a dispute with Russia over whether the Turkish military’s moves had been coordinated with their Russian counterparts. Turkish reporters noted that Mr. Erdogan’s understated tone and remarks were free of the vitriolic rhetoric he often uses for opponents.

Syrian government forces have recently intensified their offensive in Idlib, in western Syria, the last rebel-held province. Turkey deployed several hundred troops to observation posts there in 2018, as part of an agreement with Russia to create a de-escalation zone in the area.

But Russian and Syrian forces have been conducting an offensive on the major highway through the province, prompting hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee north toward the border with Turkey.

Turkey has already taken in nearly four million people trying to escape the war, which started nearly nine years ago, and is concerned that the Syrian push into the area will create a fresh surge of refugees. It has closed its border with Syria to prevent more refugees from entering.

Nearly 700,000 people have been displaced since the Russian-led offensive began in Idlib last year — 140,000 in January alone. Many are camping in the open in increasingly desperate conditions.

The deployment of air power came after the Turkish Defense Ministry said that a supply convoy bringing reinforcements into the observation posts on Monday had come under fire, leaving six Turkish soldiers dead and several others wounded.

The movement of the convoy had been coordinated beforehand, the statement said, and Turkish forces retaliated immediately. “Those who test Turkey’s determination with such heinous attacks will understand they have made a huge mistake,’’ Mr. Erdogan said.

Moscow, however, disputed Turkey’s account about coordinating with other forces in the province, saying that the Russian Defense Ministry had not been told about the troop movements.

Syrian forces were trying to hit militants linked with Al Qaeda, the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to The Associated Press, and the Turkish forces were struck because they were in the area. (To justify their attacks, including ones that have killed many civilians, Russia and the Syrian government have consistently argued they must go on the offensive to eradicate terrorists.)

Turkey has always supported the opposition forces fighting against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, including some radical Islamists, and has sought to delay the Russian-Syrian advance to take Idlib.

Mr. Erdogan has highlighted his good relationship with Mr. Putin and attempted to strengthen ties by purchasing the Russian S-400 missile defense system against the wishes of the United States and other NATO allies. But those links do not appear to have won him any lasting concessions from Moscow over Idlib.

The Turkish Defense Ministry said that it was maintaining suppressive fire on Syrian targets for self-defense to evacuate the dead and wounded. “The perpetrators of this hateful attack will be brought to account and our right to self-defense will be exercised in the most robust way,” the ministry said.

The suffering continued for the civilians caught in the fighting. At least eight people, most of them women and children, were said to have been killed on Monday when their minibus came under fire on a rural road. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that nine people had died in that attack, including four children.

Ahmad Aslan, who fled with his family from the town of Maaret al-Numan, said in a video message that he would have preferred death to abandoning his home. “We prayed many times to die from rockets or from barrel bombs there but it didn’t happen,” he said.

“After the regime advanced, we were forced to leave,” he added. “We have been living under the rain and cold, we lack shelter and food.”

Video distributed on social media showed people setting fire to their homes before fleeing the town of Saraqeb, ahead of the advancing Syrian forces. “We don’t want to leave anything behind for the thugs,” a voice in the background says.

Abdul Kareem Thalji, from Iss, a few miles from Saraqeb, said, “The regime is advancing and I’m racing with time to find a car and house to stay in.” He added that he was being displaced for the seventh time. “If you ask me about hope, I will tell you my entire ambition for life has collapsed, people here have lost hope.”

Hwaida Saad and Vivian Yee contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.

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