Turkey, Russia Talk Tensions in Syria as Migrants Push West

It is not clear whether Syrian or Russia jets carried out the strike, but Turkey blamed Syria's government and Russia denied responsibility

Funeral ceremony for Turkish troops killed in attack in Syria
AP Photo

The presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke by phone Friday to try to defuse tensions that rose significantly in Syria after 33 Turkish troops were killed in an airstrike blamed on the Syrian government, and a new wave of refugees and migrants headed for the Greek land and sea border after Turkey said it would no longer hold them back.

The attack Thursday 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.

It was not clear whether Syrian or Russia jets carried out the strike, but Turkey blamed Syria's government and Russia denied responsibility.

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.

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 increased security at their borders with Turkey as hundreds boarded buses in Istanbul, apparently headed for the Greek border or the Turkish coast opposite the Greek islands.

The crisis stems from a Syrian government offensive that began Dec. 1 with Russian military support to retake Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last opposition-held stronghold. 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.

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, Erdogan and Russian President 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.

Erdogan has made no public comments but spoke with a series of global leaders Friday.

In a call with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, the two agreed to meet Monday, the Bulgarian government's press office said. It said the phone call clarified “there is currently no direct threat" to the country bordering Turkey.

Erdogan also talked with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump, who both called for the Syrian government and its supporters to stop their offensive and for a deescalation to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters that he’s talking with Russia and Turkey, appealing for a cease-fire in Idlib, but “we are not yet there.” The U.N. Security Council is holding an emergency meeting Friday.

Russia's Defense Ministry said the Turkish troops that came under fire were deployed among “terrorist battle formations.” 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, its statement said.

An Associated Press video showed rubble of a demolished building, a destroyed car and abandoned Turkish equipment at one of the sites the Syrian government targeted in the village of Balyun.

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.”

The offensive has triggered the largest single wave of displacement in Syria's nine-year war, sending nearly 950,000 people fleeing to areas near the Turkish border for safety. Ankara sealed its borders in 2015 and agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy warned that the movement of migrants to the West could continue if the situation in Idlib deteriorated further.

“Some asylum seekers and migrants in our country, worried about developments, have begun to move towards our western borders,” he said. “If the situation worsens, this risk will continue to increase.” However, he added that there was “no change” in Turkey’s migration policy.

Saying “significant numbers” of migrants and refugees had gathered on the Turkish side of the border with Greece, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that no illegal crossings would be tolerated and that Greece was not to blame for the “tragic events in Syria.” He called a meeting of top cabinet and military officials for Saturday.

Greece deployed police and military patrols to the border. Police said an estimated 1,200 people had gathered late Friday and periodically tried to push through. Some managed to cut holes in the fence close to the Kastanies border crossing and attacked police with stones but were driven back with tear gas and stun grenades.

A police officer told The Associated Press that pressure was mounting along the 200-kilometer (125-mile) land border.

“Along the entire length of the border, there are much increased attempts to break through," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter with the media. “But police and army units are constantly deterring them."

Off Turkey’s west coast, several rubber dinghies with groups of people aboard headed for the island of Lesbos. However, migrant crossings from the Turkish coast to Greek islands are a daily occurrence, and Greece’s coast guard said there was no notable increase in arrivals. Five boats carrying a total of 151 people had arrived — a fairly average daily number — and the coast guard said there were no reports that Turkish officials were allowing migrant boats to sail unchecked.

However, 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.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting in Idlib continued Friday, particularly around the strategic town of Saraqeb. Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters retook the town from government forces Thursday, cutting off a key highway just days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.

Syria's Foreign Ministry said Turkey was trying to back insurgents who had lost more than 130 villages over the past weeks. It said Syrian troops will continue their mission to eradicate all “terrorist presence.”

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.

Wilks reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow; Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Costas Kantouris in Kastanies, Greece, Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Edith M. Lederer in the United Nations contributed.

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