By The Washington Post · Liz Sly · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST
The Syrian Su-24 fighter jets were downed shortly after Turkey's Defense Ministry announced it had launched a major military operation against Syrian forces in the area in retaliation for the deaths of 36 Turkish soldiers in a Syrian airstrike last week.
Turkey said the jets were shot down because they posed a threat to Turkish warplanes in the area. The Syrian state news agency SANA said the pilots ejected and parachuted to safety behind Syrian lines.
The air battle came amid a wider expansion of fighting across northwestern Syria as Turkish troops accompanied by Syrian rebel fighters launched Operation Spring Shield, a push to drive back the Syrian loyalist forces that have been advancing steadily toward the Turkish border in recent weeks.
Armed Turkish drones struck Syrian government positions in the province of Idlib and an adjoining strip of territory in Aleppo as the Syrian rebels pressed forward on several fronts.
With fighting in multiple locations, the situation on the ground remained confused. But it appeared that the Turkish-led offensive had succeeded in at least halting the Syrian government advance and in some cases driving the Syrian army out of areas it had seized from the rebels weeks ago.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Sunday that Turkey had killed 2,200 Syrian troops and destroyed large amounts of heavy weaponry since the fighting ticked up in recent days. The claim could not be independently verified.
Russia, which backed Syrian troops with airstrikes throughout the Syrian government offensive, appeared to be holding back as talks with Turkey, aimed at mending a rift in relations precipitated by the fighting, continue.
The sharp escalation followed weeks of building tension, during which Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan threatened repeatedly to launch a military operation if the Syrian government didn't pull all of its troops back from the territory they had taken by the end of February. The airstrike Thursday in which the 36 troops died seems to have hardened his resolve.
The Syrian government's advances into Idlib province have displaced nearly a million civilians, who have been fleeing toward the Turkish border in what aid officials are describing as the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the war. The exodus has raised Turkish fears of another mass influx of refugees into Turkey, to add to the 3.7 million Syrians it is already hosting.
Turkey acted over the weekend to fulfill another recent threat, to open up its borders for refugees and migrants who want to travel to Europe, triggering a flood of thousands of people toward its border with Greece. Greece closed its border with Turkey and intensified naval patrols, trapping many hundreds in the no man's land between the two countries on Sunday.