Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Turkey's Erdogan tells Putin 'get out of our way' in Idlib

Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike this week, its biggest loss in recent years

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to "get out of our way" in Syria's last rebel bastion of Idlib on Saturday in his first comments since 33 Turkish troops were killed in a regime air strike.

"I asked Mr Putin: 'what's your business there? If you establish a base, do so but get out of our way and leave us face-to-face with the regime,'" he said in Istanbul, recalling his phone conversation.

A Turkish official said on Saturday that Turkey destroyed a chemical warfare facility after dozens of its soldiers were killed in the last-rebel enclave.

Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group also lost at least eight fighters in north-west Syria in skirmishes with insurgents and airstrikes by Turkey’s air force, an opposition war monitor and the militant group said Saturday.

The deaths marked the highest for the group in Syria in years as Hezbollah has pulled out many of its fighters from the neighbouring country.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 14 Hezbollah fighters were killed Friday afternoon in the village of Talhiyeh when Turkish drones attacked their post as well as others of the Syrian army.

The Observatory said 48 Syrian soldiers have also been killed since Thursday in Turkish bombardments and drone attacks in the region.

The Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said the 14 Hezbollah fighters included 10 Lebanese citizens and four of other nationalities, including at least one Iranian.

Hezbollah later released a statement listing the names and photos of eight of its fighters, including an Iranian cleric identified as Sayyed Ali Zengani. It gave no details other than saying that they “were martyred while performing their jihadi duties.”

More than a thousand Hezbollah fighters, including several founding members, have been killed in Syria.

Overnight, the Turkish army destroyed "a chemical warfare facility, located some 13 kilometres south of Aleppo, along with a large number of other regime targets," the senior official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

However, the Observatory, which relies on sources inside the war-torn country, said that Turkey instead hit a military airport in eastern Aleppo, where the monitoring group says there are no chemical weapons.

Thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in the Idlib region on Thursday, the biggest Turkish military loss on the battlefield in recent years.

In a bid for more international backing of Turkey’s deployment in Syria – which has so far been muted – Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara wants the US to send Patriot missiles defence systems to Turkey for back-up in Idlib.

Moscow and Ankara have expressed hope for a "reduction in tensions" in Syria during high-level talks between both sides, Russia's foreign ministry said on Saturday.

"On both sides, the focus has been on reducing tensions on the ground while continuing to fight terrorists recognised by the United Nations Security Council," Moscow's foreign ministry said in a statement.

The latest incident has raised further tensions between Ankara and Moscow, whose relationship has been tested by violations of a 2018 deal to prevent a regime offensive on Idlib.

As part of the agreement, Ankara set up 12 observation posts in the province but Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's forces – backed by Russian air power – have pressed on with a relentless campaign to take back the region.

On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone with Mr Putin in a bid to scale down the tensions.

Mr Erdogan may travel next week to Moscow for talks, according to the Kremlin.

Despite being on opposite ends, Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Syria, and key regime ally Russia are trying to find a political solution to the Syria conflict.

Turkey's Defence Ministry said one of its soldiers was killed and two were injured by Syrian government shelling, the latest fatality for Ankara in Syria.

The announcement late on Friday also said Turkish forces hit Syrian government targets and a number of Syrian troops were "neutralised."

Syrian government forces have been on a weeks-long offensive into Idlib province, the country's last rebel stronghold, which borders Turkey. Thousands of Turkish soldiers are deployed inside rebel-controlled areas of Idlib province, which is dominated by Al Qaeda-linked militants.

On Friday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres again called for an immediate cease-fire in north-western Syria Friday "before the situation gets entirely out of control," and 13 of the 15 nations on the UN Security Council supported his appeal at an emergency meeting - but not Syria's closest ally Russia and China.

The UN chief made the appeal after airstrikes in the last opposition stronghold in Idlib killed at least 33 Turkish troops on Thursday. The attack heightened tensions between pro-opposition Turkey and Russia, and raised the possibility of an all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.

Mr Guterres said he's been in very close contact with Russia and Turkey, appealing for a cease-fire in the Idlib region but "we are not yet there."

"Without urgent action," he warned, "the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour."

The four European Union council members – France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia – said in a joint statement that "the military escalation in Idlib must stop."

"We demand an end to this Syrian military campaign supported by Russia, and fully back the calls made by the UN secretary-general for an immediate cease-fire and unimpeded humanitarian access," they said. "We strongly urge the UN to accelerate and intensify their engagements with all relevant parties to secure an immediate cease-fire effort in northwest Syria."

The four EU countries requested the emergency meeting along with the United Kingdom, United States and the Dominican Republic.

Updated: February 29, 2020 08:11 PM

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