The presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke over the phone on Friday, a day after Syrian government airstrikes killed 33 Turkish troops, significantly ratcheting up tensions between Ankara and Moscow. It was the highest number of Turkish soldiers killed in a single day since Ankara first intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016. Russia on Friday said that Turkish troops who came under fire by the Syrian army were among “terrorists”, after at least 33 were killed in Idlib province.
Turkey on Friday called on the international community to establish a no-fly zone over the northwestern province of Idlib to protect civilians from Syrian regime bombardments a day after the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers. Syrian regime forces backed by Russian air strikes have since December clawed back chunks of the Idlib region, forcing close to a million people to flee their homes and shelters amid bitter cold.
The development was the most serious escalation in the conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces and raised the prospect of all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle. NATO envoys held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a NATO member, and scores of migrants began converging on Turkey’s border with Greece seeking entry into Europe after Turkey said it was “no longer able to hold 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 of refugees eager to flee to Europe unless more international support was provided. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy warned the movement of migrants to the West could continue if the situation in Idlib deteriorated. “Some asylum seekers and migrants in our country, worried about developments, have begun to move towards our western borders,” he said.
The latest crisis stems from a Russian-backed Syrian government military campaign to retake Syria’s Idlib province, which is the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria. The offensive, which began December 1, 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, the Syrian rebels’ last supporter, sealed its borders in 2015 and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees.