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Putin, Erdogan talk over phone, agree 'additional measures' needed in Idlib

Local | 2020-02-28 13:06:00
Putin, Erdogan talk over phone, agree 'additional measures' needed in Idlib
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan Friday expressed grave concern over the situation in Syria's Idlib province after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian fire, the Kremlin said.

The Kremlin added that the two also agreed in a telephone call on the need for "additional measures" and are looking into the possibility of a summit meeting in the near future.

"Serious concern was expressed over an escalation of tensions in Idlib which lead to numerous casualties including among the Turkish military," the Kremlin said.

RUSSIA TURKEY TENSION

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that the talks had focused on implementing a 2018 ceasefire agreement agreed for Idlib -- the last rebel-held bastion in Syria's civil war.

"There is always room for dialogue. Today there were phone talks between presidents Putin and Erdogan... The conversation was detailed and devoted to the necessity to do everything" to implement agreements on Idlib,'' said Lavrov.

"But we need to begin implementing those aims. For half a year nothing has been done. The Syrian army has every right to react to constant violations," he added.

Striking a relatively conciliatory tone but also indicating Turkey had to fulfill its responsibilities, Lavrov said Russia was ready to help improve the security of Turkish troops in Idlib.

He said Russia expressed its "condolences" for the deaths while adding "such tragedies" could be averted if Turkey gave accurate coordinates for the location of its troops.

He said that Turkey and Russia were in constant contact over Idlib, with Ankara informing Moscow of the locations of its troops on a daily basis -- with these coordinates then passed to the Syrian regime.

However, on this occasion Turkey had not informed Russia its soldiers were in the area hit by Syrian fire, he said, adding they had been among "terrorists".

"As soon as this was clear, we asked the Syrian regime to take a pause in military action and do everything to ensure the evacuation of the wounded and allow the transfer of the killed soldiers back to Turkish territory," he added.

However Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar earlier rejected this, stating that ''during this attack, there were no armed groups around our military units.'

Turkey claims that the attacks on its' troops occured despite Turkey having informed Russian officials on the ground and that the attacks continued even after Turkish soldiers notified Russian personel.

Since the attacks, Russia has sent two warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles to the Mediterranean Sea towards the Syrian coast, the Interfax news agency cited Russia's Black Sea Fleet as saying Friday.

NATO MEETING

NATO's secretary-general called on Russia and Syria Friday to halt the offensive in Idlib and said, after a meeting of the alliance's ambassadors, that NATO stood in solidarity with Turkey.

"We call on Russia and the Syria regime to stop the attacks, to stop the indiscriminate air attacks ... we also call on Russia and Syria to fully respect the international law," Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.

"We call on Syria and Russia to fully engage in U.N.-led efforts to find a peaceful solution for the conflict in Syria."

Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about any new wave of refugees arriving.

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country - along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive - has come close to sparking a crisis at the military alliance.

France in particular has tried to launch debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty - which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack - but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making, and particularly because Erdogan has used up a lot of good will by testing his fellow NATO members' patience for quite a while.

The Syria offensive comes on top of tensions over Turkey's purchase of Russian-made S400 missiles, which threaten NATO security and the F-35 stealth jet. Erdogan also purged thousands of Turkish military officers following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and some have sought, and been granted, asylum in Europe.

But despite high political-military tensions, Turkey is too important to eject from the 29-member alliance.

Turkey is of great strategic importance to NATO. The large, mainly Muslim country straddles the Bosporus Strait, making it a vital bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It's also the only waterway in and out of the Black Sea, where Russia's naval fleet is based.

NATO allies also rely on the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey as a staging point for access to the Middle East. The alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the United States has nuclear weapons stationed there.

MIGRATION CRISIS

The strikes, which Turkey blames on Damascus, led Erdogan to state that Turkey was "no longer able to hold refugees or prevent them crossing into Europe" - reiterating a longstanding warning from Erdogan that his country can no longer cope with the arrival of people fleeing the conflict. The EU however expressed assurance that Turkey would continue to uphold the migration agreement with the bloc, despite indication to the contrary. Turkey has since launched retaliatory strikes on regime positions in Idlib, killing 16 soldiers, monitors said.

Turkey's statements regarding refugees prompted scores of migrants to gather at Turkey's border with Greece seeking entry into Europe. Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to "open the gates" in several disputes with European states.

DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey's western coast.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region shouting "open the borders." Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press on the record.
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