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Turkish army retaliates in northern Syria, 120 regime fighters killed

(Zaman Al Wasl)- At least 120 regime troops and Shiite militants were killed Friday in Turkish army shelling on military positions in northern Syria, rebel commander told Zaman al-Wasl.
The heavy Turkish bombardments came after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed late on Thursday by Russian-backed regime troops in the deadliest attack suffered by Turkey's army in nearly 30 years.

The Turkish army has used artillery fire and drones in Friday’s attacks.

Sources say top army officers were killed in the town of Zarba south of Aleppo city due to the Turkish artillery.

 At least 10 Hezbollah militants were also killed in artillery fire hit pro-Iran militias in Idlib, activists said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday described an escalation in fighting in northwest Syria as "one of the most alarming moments" of the nine-year-old war and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke by phone to try to defuse tensions.

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%, while the Turkish lira slid against the dollar.

In their phone call, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin discussed implementing agreements in Idlib, the Kremlin said. Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan's director of communications, said they had agreed to meet "as soon as possible."

Two Russian frigates armed with cruise missiles were en route to the Syrian coast, Russian navy officials said. The Admiral Makarov and the Admiral Grigorovich of the Black Sea Fleet both previously took part in Russia's offensive in Syria.

The attack marked the deadliest day for the Turkish military since Ankara first entered the Syrian conflict in 2016 and also was the most serious escalation between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces, raising the prospect of an all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.

Erdogan and his US counterpart Donald Trump agreed in a phone call on Friday on steps to avoid a "humanitarian tragedy" in northern Syria, the Turkish presidency said.

"The two leaders agreed on additional steps without delay in order to avert a big humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the Idlib region," the Turkish presidency said in a statement.

Erdogan told Trump that Turkey had delivered the necessary response to the perpetrators of the "despicable attack aimed at our heroic soldiers" and reiterated Ankara's determination to clear "regime elements" from areas in Idlib covered by a ceasefire agreement signed by Ankara and Moscow in 2018, it said.

NATO envoys held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a NATO member. Turkey's 28 allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths and urged de-escalation, but no additional NATO support was offered.

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

Erdogan, whose country already hosts more than 3.6 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 increased security at their borders with Turkey in preparation for an influx.

The crisis stems from the Assad offensive that began Dec. 1 with Russian military support to retake Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria. Turkey, the main backer of the Syrian opposition, has lost 54 soldiers this month, including the latest fatalities, and now feels the need to respond strongly.

Erdogan held a six-hour emergency security meeting in Ankara late Thursday, the Anadolu news agency reported. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone while Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who plays a senior role in foreign affairs, spoke to U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien.

Russia's Defense 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 coordinates given to Russia’s Reconciliation Center in Syria, "there were no Turkish military units in the area ... and there weren’t supposed to be," the ministry said,
Russian air forces did not carry out airstrikes in the area, the statement added, 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."

In recent weeks, Turkey has sent thousands of troops as well as tanks and other equipment to Idlib. As recently as Wednesday, Erdogan gave the Syrian government until the end of February to pull back from its recent advances or face Turkish "intervention."

Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan's ruling party, said Turkey was "no longer able to hold refugees" following the Syrian attack, reiterating a standing threat by Ankara.
Bulgaria said it was deploying "army units, national guard and border police staff" on its border with Turkey to counter "a real threat" of an influx, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said after a Cabinet meeting.
Turkey provides some of the militants with direct support and has accused Syria of breaking a 2018 agreement to reduce the conflict in Idlib. Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad have said Turkey has failed to honor a deal to separate extremist groups from other fighters in the region.

The Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters retook a strategic northwestern town from government forces, cutting a key highway just days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.

Despite losing the town of Saraqeb, Assad's forces made major gains to the south. Assad now controls almost the entire southern part of Idlib province after capturing more than 20 villages Thursday, state media and opposition activists said.

(Zaman Al Wasl with Agencies)

Zaman Al Wasl
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