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ANKARA: A Syrian military helicopter was shot down over the last major opposition bastion in northwest Syria on Friday, the second such incident in a week of high tensions with Turkey. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two pilots were killed. The Turkey-backed National Liberation Front rebel group claimed responsibility.
It came as Syrian and Russian forces pressed a deadly offensive against the shrinking pocket in the country’s northwest, claiming the lives of nine civilians on Friday.
The mangled remains of the chopper and the blood-stained fatigues of one of the pilots were seen at the crash site.
Three days earlier another Syrian regime helicopter was downed over Idlib province, killing at least three crew members.
Turkish media blamed that attack on rebels but the observatory said Ankara’s troops had fired rockets at the aircraft over the village of Qaminas, southeast of Idlib city. Turkey did not claim responsibility.
ANALYSIS: Is Turkey mulling a counterattack in Idlib?
Separately, Israeli strikes on the Damascus airport killed seven fighters, the latest in a string of attacks targeting Iran’s military presence in Syria.
The observatory said the strikes launched late Thursday hit military targets in the area of the international airport. Rami Abdel Rahman, its director, said the dead were three regime soldiers and four members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
As Turkey is poised to send additional troops to Idlib, there is speculation of a large-scale war if the deadline given to Damascus to withdraw its forces by the end of the month is ignored. Turkey’s military continued on Friday to move armored vehicles and bulldozers to Idlib.
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Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, said Turkey’s preference is to use the regime’s offensive as an excuse to exercise more control over Idlib and get rebel groups there to be more dependent on Ankara for support.
“Turkey benefits from US support in Idlib, but isn’t interested in the US prodding it into an offensive,” he told Arab News.
“A conflict puts at risk too much for Ankara, such as its S-400 (missile system) deal (with Moscow), TurkStream (a natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Turkey) and Libya operations.”
So far, no deal has been reached yet between Turkey and the US regarding Idlib.