As tensions in Idlib province reach the boiling point, Turkey has asked Russia to let it fight the Syrian government face-to-face, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed.
Erdogan asked Putin “to get out of the way” and let the Turkish troops deal with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Turkish leader told his AK Party on Saturday.
Erdogan was explaining to lawmakers his government’s handling of the escalation in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where Turkish and Syrian troops have engaged in several clashes over the past weeks. The hostilities have all but ruined Turkey’s 2018 agreement with Russia on de-escalating the violence in the area, which remains the last major stronghold of anti-government forces in Syria.
Describing his phone conversation with Putin, Erdogan said if Russia’s interest in Syria was to keep a military presence there, Turkey, a NATO member, does not object to it.
“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.”
Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015 to help Damascus fight against jihadist groups. Moscow said helping the Syrian government prevented future attacks launched by this would-be entity against other nations, including Russia.
Erdogan said Ankara now considers Syrian government troops a legitimate target for its attacks, claiming Damascus lost over 2,100 soldiers in Idlib. It was not immediately clear if the casualty number only represents Syrian troops killed directly by the Turkish military or includes those killed by Turkish-backed armed groups. Erdogan added that “seven warehouses with chemicals” were also destroyed in Syria, but did not offer any details or evidence regarding whether Syria still had chemical weapons in its possession.
The Turkish leader said fighting against the Syrian government is necessary to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, which would cause a new influx of refugees into Turkey across the border. Part of the Turkish response to the situation was opening the border with Europe to asylum-seekers. Erdogan said the EU failed to support Turkey, which already hosts over 3,6 million refugees from Syria and faces as many as 4 million new arrivals now.
“We will not close those doors… Why? Because the European Union should keep its promises.”
The Turkish president said he expects the international community and NATO in particular to support his country in the fight against the Assad government.
He claimed Turkey’s incursion into Syria was made by invitation “from the Syrian people” and that Ankara is not interested in territorial expansion or capturing Syrian oil. The latter remark seems like a veiled jab at US President Donald Trump, who said “securing the oil” in eastern Syria was a major achievement of the US troops deployed there.
Moscow: Russian and Turkish diplomats, who held consultations in Ankara on the unfolding crisis in Syria’s Idlib province, have reaffirmed their nations’ commitments to deescalate the hostilities, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Both sides also agreed “to continue fighting against terrorist forces as designated by the UN Security Council” and to protect the civilian population, the statement said.