Turkey seeks to defuse tension with Russia in Syria

by Raziye Akkoc with Anna Malpas in Moscow
Merkel and Macron also voiced concern about a 'humanitarian catastrophe' that has seen an estimated 900,000 people flee their homes since December

Turkey said Thursday it wanted no "face off" with Russia over its Syrian ally's months-long offensive against Turkish-backed rebels in northwest Syria.

Russia warned Turkey meanwhile to stop arming the "terrorists" saying Russian warplanes had struck Ankara-backed groups in the Idlib region.

The region's growing volatility prompted Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron in Berlin on Thursday to call for talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In their phone call with Putin, Germany said Merkel and Macron also voiced concern about a "humanitarian catastrophe" that has seen an estimated 900,000 people flee their homes since December.

Earlier on Thursday, Turkey blamed a Syrian regime air strike for the deaths of two of its soldiers in Idlib.

It brings the number of Turkish personnel killed by Syrian forces this month to 16. Five others were wounded on Thursday, the defence ministry said

"We have no intentions of a face-off with Russia," Turkey's defence minister Hulusi Akar told CNN Turk broadcaster, adding talks would continue with Russian officials.

One of the issues being discussed is the airspace above Idlib and Turkey's expectations for Russia not to get involved, Akar said.

There has been no concrete agreement between Russia and Turkey after two rounds of talks between their respective delegations in Ankara and Moscow earlier this month.

Ankara insists that it wants to avoid a humanitarian disaster but also wants to avoid flow of refugees into Turkey, which is already home to 3.6 million Syrians.

-'Threat of air strikes' -

Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib province, set up after a deal signed with Russia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2018 to prevent a regime offensive.

But its forces have come under increasing attack.

"There is the threat of air strikes, missiles against our country," Akar told CNN Turk channel. "There could be Patriot support."

The Patriot systems are composed of high performance radars and interceptor missiles capable of destroying incoming ballistic missiles in flight.

Akar ruled out any US troop support in the interview filmed earlier on Thursday.

Any delivery of US Patriots would be difficult since Ankara purchased the S-400 Russian air defence system despite Washington's objections and concerns.

Despite this and the remaining threat of US sanctions against Turkey over the purchase, Akar said the system "would be activated... No one should doubt this."

The minister also again criticised the US over its move last year to kick Turkey off its F-35 fighter jet programme as punishment for the S-400 purchase. "We are a partner in the programme, not a customer," he added.

Turkey has warned Damascus of an "imminent" operation if regime forces do not move back behind Ankara's military posts in Idlib.

Moscow, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, urged Turkey to stop "supporting terrorists" in Syria, saying Russian planes had carried out air strikes against armed groups backed by Ankara.

- 'Urge the Turkish side' -

"We urge the Turkish side, in order to avoid incidents, to cease support of the actions of terrorists and handing them arms," the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.

The Turkish defence ministry said it retaliated against regime forces on Thursday, with "over 50 regime elements, five tanks, two armoured personnel carriers, two armoured pickups and one howitzer destroyed."

Clashes were also reported between regime forces and Turkey-backed rebels in Nayrab, between the provincial capital of Idlib and the town of Saraqeb, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The UK-based war monitor said at least 11 fighters on the pro-regime side and 14 on the pro-Turkey side were killed in the flare-up.

Despite being on opposing sides, Turkey and Russia have worked in the past to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict, but recent talks over the Idlib offensive have failed to yield results.

"There has been a little more convergence in the last meetings, but we are not at the point we wish to be," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state broadcaster TRT on Thursday.

Ankara denies Moscow's claims that it supports extremist groups in the region.

Russia said it had spotted Turkish artillery firing on Syrian units, wounding four soldiers.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, which is led by members of the country's former Al-Qaeda franchise.

More than 400 civilians have been killed since mid-December in bombings that have also hit hospitals and schools, according to the Observatory.

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Merkel and Macron also voiced concern about a 'humanitarian catastrophe' that has seen an estimated 900,000 people flee their homes since December