Putin and Erdogan agree to meet 'as soon as possible' to defuse conflict in Syria

28 February 2020, 21:04

Putin (L) and Erdoğan (R) have spoken on the phone to discuss the Syrian conflict
Putin (L) and Erdoğan (R) have spoken on the phone to discuss the Syrian conflict. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The presidents of Russia and Turkey have discussed defusing tensions in Syria after 33 Turkish troops were killed in a Syrian government airstrike.

Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke over the phone and agreed to meet "as soon as possible," Mr Erdoğan's director of communications Fahrettin Altun said.

The Kremlin stated that the pair talked about implementing agreements in Idlib, the city where the Syrian government began an offensive - with Moscow's support - against the final opposition-held stronghold in the country.

Turkey has been the main backer of the Syrian rebels and has lost a total of 54 soldiers this month. The latest fatalities have reportedly made Ankara feel the need to respond strongly.

The airstrike that killed 33 troops marked the deadliest day for the Turkish military since the country entered the Syrian conflict in 2016. It was also the most serious escalation between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces.

33 Turkish troops were killed during an airstrike in Idlib, Syria
33 Turkish troops were killed during an airstrike in Idlib, Syria. Picture: PA

Thursday's attack sharply raised the risk of direct military confrontation between Turkey and Russia, although Turkish officials blamed Syria for the airstrike.

The Turkish stock market fell 10 per cent, while the Turkish lira slid against the dollar.

Russia's Defence Ministry said the Turkish troops that came under fire were deployed among "terrorist battle formations". They were in the area of Behun, and according to co-ordinates given to Russia's Reconciliation Centre in Syria, "there were no Turkish military units in the area ... and there weren't supposed to be," the ministry said.

The statement added that Russian air forces did not carry out airstrikes in the area and, after receiving information about Turkish casualties, "the Russian side took all the necessary measures in order for the Syrian forces to stop the fire".

Nato delegates held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, one of its members. Turkey's 28 allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths and urged de-escalation, but offered no additional support.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in the city of Idlib
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in the city of Idlib. Picture: PA

Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, Nato plays no direct role in the conflict. However, its members are deeply divided over Turkey's actions there, and European allies are concerned about any new wave of refugees.

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said: "Allies condemn the continued indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib province.

"I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back UN efforts for a peaceful solution.

"This dangerous situation must be de-escalated and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 ceasefire to avoid the worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long threatened to "open the gates" for millions to flee to Europe unless more international support was provided.

Greece and Bulgaria have increased security at their borders with Turkey in preparation for an influx.

The European Union warned that the fighting in northern Syria could degenerate into open war and that the 27-nation bloc stands ready to protect its security interests.