Turkey Rejects Russian Accusation That It Flouted Agreement in Syria's Idlib

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Syrians come to meet Turkish troops outside their base near the village of Binish, in Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 14, 2020.
Syrians come to meet Turkish troops outside their base near the village of Binish, in Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 14, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed

Turkey dismissed on Saturday Russian accusations that its actions in Syria's Idlib province have flouted de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran, and said it would take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.

Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria's war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern province.

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But their fragile cooperation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.

Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February, and President Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.

Erdogan discussed the situation in separate phone calls on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump but there was no immediate word of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, says Turkey has aggravated the situation in Idlib and that Ankara has failed to neutralize militants there.

An aerial view of the town of Taftanaz, northeast of Idlib city, which was abandoned by its residence as Syrian government forces and their allies advance into the province, Feb. 13, 2020. Credit: Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV that Turkey was determined to stop Syrian advances in Idlib, and that Ankara had conveyed its position to Moscow during talks.

"We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbor," Oktay said.

"Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib. Some of our observation posts have fallen into areas controlled by the (Syrian) regime," he said, referring to Turkish military observation posts established in Idlib under the 2018 deal.

Erdogan said on Saturday Turkey could not remain silent on Syrian government forces surrounding Turkish observation posts and chided the United States over statements which he said did not instil trust.

State-run Anadolu news agency said buses carrying commandoes and trucks with more military equipment had been sent to reinforce the Turkish observation posts.

Russian news agencies quoted a military source as saying rebel fighters in Idlib had received U.S.-made portable air defense systems from Turkey, and that Ankara had sent more than 70 tanks, some 200 armored vehicles and 80 artillery weapons to the region.

Speaking during an international security conference in Munich, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara wanted to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy but added: "If it won't work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps."

He said a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday for talks and Ankara expected its allies to put pressure on Syria's government, Russia and Iran to halt attacks in Idlib.

Later on Saturday, Cavusoglu held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich – the first ministerial level meeting between Ankara and Moscow since violence worsened in Idlib.

Cavusoglu was quoted by Russian media as saying differences over Syria should not affect Ankara's relations with Moscow or disrupt its contract for the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses, which has strained Turkey's ties with its NATO ally the United States.

Cavusoglu tweeted that he had a "positive meeting" with Lavrov but said Turkey would not be "making an evaluation" until after Monday's talks in Moscow.

Escalation of violence

The increased violence in Idlib has caused hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and head north to the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, has said it cannot handle a new influx.

As the Syrian government continued its offensive, Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara. Erdogan has also spoken by phone twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the Turkish troops were killed.

Turkey has supported rebels looking to oust Assad. Erdogan said this week the Turkey-backed rebels launched an offensive to retake some areas they had lost to Syrian forces.

Syrian state media said on Saturday Syrian troops began clearing barricades from a highway between Damascus and Aleppo after recovering full control of the road for the first time in more than seven years.

State media also reported Syrian advances towards rebel-held Atarib, some 24 kilometers (15 miles) west of Aleppo, and three towns to its northwest.

On Friday, Turkish and Syrian state media reported Turkish-backed Syrian rebels shot down a government helicopter west of Aleppo in the Idlib region.

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