Turkey targets two Syrian planes over Idlib: Syria state media

Antakya, Turkey - Turkey's military shot down two Syrian government fighter jets over northwest Idlib, hours after forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad brought down a Turkish drone over the region. 

An  imminent Open state of war between Turkey and Syria, and increasingly by extension with Russia backing its ally Damascus, has continued to escalate dramatically in the last 24 hours.

In a Twitter post on Sunday, Turkey's defence ministry said its forces struck two SU-24 aircraft in response to the downing of the drone.

Syria's SANA news agency confirmed the fighters were hit over Idlib, but said no one was hurt in the attack. The pilots used parachutes and landed safely, it added.

Earlier on Sunday, Turkish and Syrian state-run media offered contradicting reports on the downing of the drone. Turkey's Anadolu news agency said an "Assad regime jet" was hit over Idlib, but Syria's SANA denied it promptly, saying a Turkish drone crashed over the town of Saraqeb.

The Turkish defence ministry's Twitter post is the first confirmation of the downing of the drone. It also said three Syrian air defence systems were destroyed in the retaliatory attack.

Bir SİHA’mızı düşüren Hava Savunma Sistemi ile diğer iki Hava Savunma Sistemi imha edilmiş, uçaklarımıza taarruz eden Rejime ait iki adet SU-24 tipi uçak düşürülmüştür. #TSK #BaharKalkanıHarekatı— T.C. Millî Savunma Bakanlığı (@tcsavunma) March 1, 2020

Amid the escalating tensions, the Syrian government closed the airspace over Idlib, with one official telling SANA any aircraft "that violates our airspace will be treated as a hostile flight that must be shot down and prevented from achieving its objectives".

Forces loyal to al-Assad, backed by Russian airpower, have renewed an offensive to capture Idlib from opposition forces, who are backed by Turkey.

Since the operation intensified in December, Syrian government forces have rapidly advanced into the last opposition stronghold, retaking the strategic M5 highway and solidifying control over parts of Aleppo province, which borders Idlib.

Turkey says the operation violates deals signed with Russia in 2017 and 2018 to set up de-escalation zones in the region.

Tensions have escalated in recent days after 34 Turkish troops were killed in Syrian government air raids on Idlib. The toll was the biggest military loss the Turkish military has suffered since it intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016. In response, Ankara said it struck scores of Syrian government targets and "neutralised" 2,212 soldiers.

Speaking in Hatay on Sunday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Ankara's response also destroyed eight Syrian helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 artillery and rocket launchers, and three air defence systems. He also said the Turkish response is called operation "Spring Shield".

Damascus is yet to comment on the Turkish claims.

"We have no intention of clashing with Russia. Our aim is to stop massacres Syrian regime's massacres, radicalisation and migration," Akar was quoted as saying by Turkish media.

He went on to pledge retaliation against attacks on Turkish forces and its observation posts in Idlib and said: "Turkey will only target Syrian regime soldiers and elements in Idlib who attacked Turkish troops... Turkey expects Russia to use its influence to end to Syrian regime attacks."

There was no immediate comment from Russia.

The renewed hostilities in Idlib has displaced nearly one million people, mostly women and children, according to the United Nations. Some 299 civilians have also been confirmed killed.

Syrian civil defence rescuers told Al Jazeera that four civilians were killed, including a child, in an air strike on Sunday by government forces near the town of Maaret Masreen in Idlib.

Mark Lowcock, head of UN's humanitarian agency, has described the situation as the "biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century" and called for an immediate ceasefire.

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