ISTANBUL: The leaders of Russia and Turkey held crisis talks on Friday after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in a regime air strike in Syria, triggering fears of a dangerous escalation of tensions.
The attack by Russian-backed Syrian forces took place late on Thursday in the northwestern province of Idlib, where President Bashar al-Assad is waging a bloody campaign to oust rebels from their last holdout.
Hours after the strike, Turkey warned it was opening the gates for refugees to flee to Europe, a move that could have major repercussions for its western neighbours which swiftly moved to boost border security.
The deadly bombardment added to weeks of tensions between rebel supporter and Nato member Ankara and Damascus ally Moscow, and heightened international concerns about the plight of people living in the battleground province.
The United Nations called for an immediate ceasefire and Nato held emergency talks, while the EU warned of the risk of a “major open international military confrontation”.
But both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared keen to scale down the tensions, expressing “serious concern” about the situation in their talks, the Kremlin said.
It was the highest single death toll since the Turkish army first intervened in Syria in 2016, and brought the total number of Turkish troops killed in Idlib this month to 53.
Turkey said it retaliated by hitting more than 200 regime targets in drone and artillery bombardments.
The reprisals killed 20 Syrian soldiers, according to a monitoring group, but there was no immediate confirmation from Damascus.
Adding to the tensions, Moscow said two of its warships were transiting through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul in plain sight of the city.
But the Kremlin said after the leaders’ call that a Turkey-Russia summit might be on the cards. “There is always room for dialogue,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“The conversation was detailed and devoted to the necessity to do everything” to implement a largely ineffective ceasefire deal agreed in 2018 between the two countries for Idlib.
Lavrov said Russia was ready to help improve the security of Turkish troops in Syria after the defence ministry said the slain soldiers had been among “terrorist groups” and had not disclosed their presence.
Turkey called on the international community to establish a no-fly zone over Idlib, where regime forces have since December clawed back chunks of the region, forcing close to one million people to flee their homes and shelters amid bitter cold.
Published in Dawn, February 29th, 2020