Turkish, Russian military chiefs talk Syria as Turkey pounds Assad forces

Turkish and Russian military chiefs discussed ongoing military clashes in Syria’s Idlib province on Thursday as Turkey pounded the positions of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Turkish Chief of General Staff General Yasar Güler and his Russian counterpart General Valery Gerasimov talked about the latest developments in Idlib and a de-escalation zone for the region in a phone conversation, the Turkish army said in a statement.

Turkey said on Friday it had killed or wounded 63 personnel of Assad’s army as clashes, which have raged over the past week, threatened to turn into all-out conflict and draw in Russian forces. Moscow is backing Assad’s efforts to conquer Idlib and wipe out remaining Islamist opposition groups supported by Ankara.

Ankara is trying to prevent Assad from killing 4 million innocent people in Idlib with barrel bombs, Erdogan said in remarks during a visit to Pakistan on Friday.

The Turkish army has killed or incapacitated 120 soldiers of the Syrian army in recent days, responding to the killing of seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian contractor last week, state-run Anadolu news agency said. Idlib, which borders Turkey, has been a stronghold of the Syrian opposition since the civil war broke out in 2011.

Turkey keeps troops and observation posts in Idlib as part of a September 2018 agreement it made with Russia to eradicate military tensions and root out Islamist extremists. Russia says Turkey has not kept its end of the deal, allowing the extremist groups to retain control of Idlib and threaten Syria’s stability.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey over Syria are threatening to sour their warming relations. Turkey has purchased S-400 air defence missiles from Moscow, angering its NATO allies, and the two countries have intensified cooperation in energy and trade. 

Ankara is concerned that fighting in Idlib will cause millions to flee across its borders, exacerbating a refugee problem that has put domestic political pressure on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his governing Justice and Development Party.

The United States is backing Turkey’s position on Idlib and analysts say the conflict there may lead to a rapprochement between the two NATO allies, who have been at loggerheads over the missile purchases and a Turkish attack on Kurds in another border area in Syria.