Russian and Turkish leaders called for sharply raised tensions in Syria’s opposition stronghold of Idlib to “normalise” yesterday, after deadly attacks which threatened to bring Moscow and Ankara to the brink of conflict.
Turkey, which backs the rebels in Syria’s civil war, blamed an attack that killed 33 of its soldiers in the north-western province of Idlib on Thursday on the Syrian government.
Thirty-two others were wounded. Moscow, which backs the Syrian government, denied any involvement.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar charged however that the attack continued even though the troops’ location was shared with Russia.
Ambulances were also hit, he said.
Hours later, at least 16 Syrian soldiers were killed in Turkish air strikes and shelling in the eastern, southern and south-eastern countryside of Idlib, said the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman.
A Syrian military source confirmed to DPA that Syrian military posts were hit by Turkish artillery.
In a phone call yesterday, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasised that their militaries need to better co-ordinate regarding Idlib, the Kremlin said.
They agreed to meet in person as soon as possible, the Turkish government said.
“Serious concern was expressed over the escalation in Idlib that has resulted in numerous victims, including Turkish servicemen,” the Kremlin statement said of the call. “Both sides emphasised the necessity of undertaking additional measures to normalise the situation in north-western Syria,” it said. The Kremlin later said Putin and Erdogan could meet in Moscow on March 5 or 6.
Ankara called for a no-fly zone in Syria after Thursday’s attack, which marked the single largest death toll in a day of Turkey’s soldiers in the region.
Deaths among Turkish soldiers in Idlib have surpassed 50 since early February, when Ankara started deploying more troops there to stave off a Syrian offensive. “The international community must act to protect civilians and impose a no-fly-zone,” tweeted Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director. Erdogan chaired an emergency security meeting lasting several hours into early yesterday but is yet to make a public announcement.
Nato allies condemned the “indiscriminate” airstrikes by the Syrian government and Russia and expressed solidarity with Turkey, which has the second-largest military in the alliance.
“I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back the UN efforts for a peaceful solution,” Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. President Donald Trump “reaffirmed” US support for Turkey in Idlib in a phone call with Erdogan, a White House statement said, but urged that all parties halt their offensive there.
The UN Security Council in New York was due to discuss Idlib later.
Ahead of the meeting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire in Idlib and described the deadly attacks as “one of the most alarming moments across the duration of the Syrian conflict.” Damascus’ steady advances into rebel-held territory in Idlib, enabled by Russian air power, have displaced nearly 950,000 people, who are fleeing to Turkey’s border.
A massive refugee influx is the most pressing concern for Turkey, which already hosts 3.6mn Syrian refugees.
Faced with this possible influx, Ankara said it was being forced to ease border controls for refugees trying to leave Turkey. “There was only one step left” for Turkey to take “in an environment where it is left alone in hosting refugees and averting terrorism,” said Altun. “It should be known that the Syrian refugees are now a problem for not only Turkey but the whole world, in particular the countries in the region and Europe,” he said, according to state news agency Anadolu.
Turkish and Greek media reported that hundreds of migrants were heading or had arrived at Turkey’s borders with European Union members Greece and Bulgaria.
Greece closed its Kastanies-Pazarkule border crossing with Turkey, and it was not immediately clear when it would reopen.
Police fired tear gas at a group of people moving toward the border, state broadcaster ERT said.
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