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In this frame grab from video taken on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, people ride their motorcycles next to a Turkey Armed Forces convoy is seen at the northern town of Sarmada, in Idlib province, Syria. Image Credit: AP

Ankara: Syrian government forces killed four Turkish soldiers and wounded nine in northwest Syria, in an assault that risks triggering a dramatic surge in tensions.

It was the deadliest encounter between the neighboring countries, and Turkey said its troops were subjected to a round of intense Syrian shelling in Idlib province even though the deployment of Turkish reinforcements has been previously coordinated, the Defense Ministry in Ankara said in a statement without elaborating.

Turkish forces responded by hitting dozens of targets with air strikes and artillery fire, killing as many as 35 Syrian troops, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Those who are testing Turkey’s determination with this kind of treacherous attack will realize they’ve committed a big mistake,” Erdogan said in Ankara before departing for a trip to Ukraine.

He urged Syria’s Russian backers not to try to stop the Turkish operation, saying its target is the Syrian regime.

The fighting in Idlib is sorely testing the marriage of convenience between Turkey and Russia in Syria, where the two powers have carved up spheres of influence.

Idlib offensive intensifies

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, with Russian air support, has escalated its attacks against Idlib, the last bastion of opposition controlled by onetime al-Qaeda affiliates along with Turkey-backed rebels.

Rescue workers carry the injured after an air strike in Idlib. Image Credit: AFP

The showdown unleashed an exodus of people fleeing the fighting toward Turkey, which already shelters the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world.

Turkey sent reinforcements to Idlib as the advance of Syrian troops threatened to cut off some Turkish military outposts stationed on the perimeters of Idlib under a cease-fire monitoring mission negotiated with Russia and Iran.

Over the weekend, Turkey-backed troops took control of three villages in western and northwestern Syria, according to a U.K.-based group that monitors the Syria through activists on the ground.

After violent clashes in Al-Bab in Aleppo with Syrian regime forces, Turkish troops captured several soldiers and damaged some of their machinery, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

On Friday, Erdogan said supporters of the Syrian regime aim to prolong the crisis and that his country “will not hesitate” to do whatever is necessary to provide security and stability, “including the use of military power.”