Turkey says U.S. offering Patriot systems if S-400s remain unboxed

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States has offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system if Ankara promises not to operate a rival Russian system, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, in what he called a significant softening in Washington’s position.

Two Turkish officials told Reuters that Turkey was evaluating the U.S. offer but that Ankara had not changed its plans for the Russian S-400 systems, which it has said it will start to activate next month.

NATO allies Turkey and the United States have been at odds over Ankara’s purchase last year of the S-400s, which Washington says are incompatible with the alliance’s defense systems.

After heavy fighting in northwestern Syria’s Idlib region this year Turkey asked Washington to deploy Patriots along its border with Syria for protection but the United States said Turkey cannot have both the S-400s and the Patriots.

Speaking to reporters on his return flight from Brussels, Erdogan said Ankara had told Washington to deploy Patriot systems to Turkey and that it was ready to purchase the systems from the United States as well.

“We made this offer to the United States on the Patriot: If you are going to give us Patriots, then do it. We can also buy Patriots from you,” he said.

“They also softened significantly on this S-400 issue. They are now at the point of ‘promise us you won’t make the S-400s operational’,” Erdogan added.

Previous talks between Turkey and the United States on the purchase of the Patriots have collapsed over a host of issues, from the S-400s to Ankara’s dissatisfaction with Washington’s terms. Turkey has said it will only agree to an offer if it includes technology transfer and joint production terms.

While ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained, the United States has offered support for its ally as it battle to stop Russia-backed Syrian government advances in Idlib.

But U.S. officials said on Tuesday Ankara had to clarify its position on the S-400s for their security ties to advance.

U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield told reporters on a conference call from Brussels that Washington was discussing with NATO what support it can offer Turkey militarily.

Jeffrey also said they had considered possible responses should Russia and the Syrian government break a ceasefire in Idlib, officials said.

He suggested other NATO states could individually or as an alliance provide military support to help Turkey. But he ruled out sending ground troops and said there still needed to be a resolution to the S-400 issue for the security relationship to move forward.

“You can forget ground troops. Turkey has demonstrated that it and its opposition forces are more than capable of holding ground on their own,” Jeffrey said. “The issue is the situation in the air and it’s what we are looking at,” he said.

Washington did not believe that Russia and Syrian had any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib, he said.

“They are out to get a military victory in Syria and our goal is to make it difficult for them to do that,” Jeffrey said.

“Our goal is…to make them think twice. If they ignore our warnings and preparations and move forward, then we will react as rapidly as possible in consultation with our NATO and European allies on what the package of sanctions and other reactions will be.”

POSITION “UNCHANGED”

While Erdogan has frequently referred to the S-400 purchase as a “done deal” and said Turkey will not turn back from it, he did not repeat that stance in his comments on Tuesday. Turkish officials, however, said Turkey’s position remained unchanged.

“The United States has once again brought up the Patriot offer. The United States’ previous strong stance isn’t the case any more. They are approaching Turkey more empathetically now,” a senior official said.

“The core condition is that the S-400s are not activated, or in other words that they are not unboxed. This offer is being evaluated, but there is no change of stance on the S-400s,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity said.

A separate Turkish official told Reuters the latest offer by Washington also included Turkey’s return to the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, which Turkey was involved in both as manufacturer of plane parts and customer for the jets.

After Ankara bought the S-400s, Washington suspended its involvement in the program and threatened sanctions.

“There is a U.S. offer for Patriots, but this offer includes the F-35s,” the Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Air defense systems can be purchased, but Turkey’s conditions are clear: there has to be issues like the know-how transfer and joint production.”

Turkey has said it plans to activate the S-400s it received from Russia in April. The United States has warned that such a move will trigger U.S. sanctions, though Ankara has repeatedly said good ties between Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump may be able to avert this.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay, additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Daren Butler, Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Russia-Turkey ceasefire broadly holds despite clashes in Syria’s Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Jonathan Spicer

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Deadly clashes erupted in parts of northwest Syria on Friday but a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey aimed at ending months of intense conflict was largely holding elsewhere in the country’s last rebel-held enclave.

A war monitor and rebel sources said the fighting broke out in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Idlib province between Syrian government forces and jihadist insurgents of the Turkistan Islamic Party. Fifteen people were killed, the Syrian Observatory said.

Residents and opposition forces said the violence had abated elsewhere.

The clashes, while limited, underline the fragility of Thursday’s deal between Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and Turkey. Ankara supports rebel fighters but has less sway over hardline jihadists who control large parts of Idlib.

The ceasefire aims to contain a conflict that has displaced nearly a million people in three months in Idlib, which borders Turkey. But analysts and residents said they feared it would not hold in part because it did not address the humanitarian crisis nor air protection in any detail.

“The deal is a failure and a joke,” said Amar Ahmed, 32, a farmer who has been displaced for nearly two months and lives in a destroyed building. “We want to go back home, to our lands, and for the (Assad) regime to leave our home towns.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had vowed repeatedly in recent weeks to reverse advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib. However, Thursday’s deal froze the conflict along existing front lines, cementing significant gains by Syrian government forces.

“There may be criticism but our priority was for a ceasefire and we achieved it. Some goals were not reached but that goes for both sides,” a senior Turkish official said.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The recent fighting sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has tried to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Russia had repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring troops and equipment into Idlib since early last month. About 60 Turkish troops have been killed in that time.

The ceasefire deal establishes a security corridor stretching 6 km (3.7 miles) to the north and south of Idlib’s east-west M4 highway, where joint Russian-Turkish patrols will begin on March 15, effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into the province.

Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed. The latest one did not detail a “safe zone” or describe how displaced people could return to their homes.

“Any ceasefire arrangement in Idlib, unless it has a no-fly zone dimension, is bound to fail. Deals in the past never de-escalated. They merely froze the crisis until the next escalation,” said Galip Dalay, IPC-Mercator fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Zagreb, Dutch minister Stef Blok said the ceasefire should be cemented with a no-fly zone to stop any further bombing of hospitals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped the deal “will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone”.

Erdogan said the sides would work together to supply aid to Syrians in need, but that Turkey retained the right to “respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

TENSE CALM

Residents and fighters in the region said the front lines – which have seen heavy air strikes by Russian and Syrian jets, and intense Turkish artillery and drone strikes – were largely quiet after the midnight ceasefire came into effect.

“There is a ceasefire but there are violations,” said Abdul Ghani al Sheikh, a rebel fighter from the Turkey-backed Failaq Sham rebel group. He said government forces were shelling Jabal al Zawya and Atareb, to the south and east of Idlib.

“But the situation overall is better. Everyone thinks this is all temporary and Turkish reinforcements are still coming,” he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that the first eight hours of the ceasefire had passed with “relative calm”, and the skies had been free of Syrian government and Russian warplanes.

A Syrian state reporter, broadcasting from the town of Saraqeb recaptured by Syrian forces last week, said they were reinforcing positions at the front lines.

Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions called the National Liberation Front, said government forces had violated the ceasefire with shelling and attempts to storm a front line, leaving little trust between the sides.

Ahmad Rahhal, a former general in Syria’s government forces who defected to the opposition, said: “There is no pullout, and where will the displaced go (who) would never accept going to (Assad) regime areas? What we have heard is not comforting.”

(Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Samar Hassan in Cairo and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Battle rages over strategic Syrian town of Saraqeb as humanitarian catastrophe unfolds

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces said on Thursday they had recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, marking a first big push-back of a Syrian government offensive.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said developments were turning in Ankara’s favor, three weeks after the armed rebel opposition lost the northwestern town at the crossroads of two main highways to the Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The Syrian army has pushed hard in recent months to retake the last large rebel-held region in northwestern Syria after nine years of war that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Syria’s Idlib province in an incursion to back the rebels against the offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the war.

The United Nations said on Thursday the battle was having “catastrophic” humanitarian consequences, with the civilian death toll rising and schools and hospitals destroyed.

At least 134 civilians, including 44 children, had been killed in February alone, Najat Rochdi, the United Nations’ senior humanitarian adviser on northwest Syria, said in Geneva.

Seven children were among 11 people killed when an air strike hit a school in northern Idlib on Tuesday, she said.

Rochdi also reiterated a call by the United Nations Secretary-General for a ceasefire.

In Ankara, Erdogan said he would press on with the campaign as he announced that the death toll of the Turkish military forces in the region this month had risen to 21.

“Developments in Idlib have turned to our advantage. We have three martyrs, let them rest in peace. But on the other hand, the regime’s losses are very big,” he said in a speech.

“Our battle will continue. Our talks with the Russians continue,” he said. “If there was no support from Russia or Iran, it would be impossible for Assad to stand.”

Earlier, the Turkish-backed rebels said they made advances in Idlib.

“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front.

A Russian military source cited by Russian news agencies denied that, saying Syrian government forces had successfully repelled a rebel attack on the town.

A Turkish official subsequently said Assad’s forces, backed by Russian warplanes, had launched an assault to take back Saraqeb. “There are violent clashes,” he told Reuters.

With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.

Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in southern Idlib and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebels said heavy fighting was still raging in an area that the army, backed by Iranian-militias, had gained in new advances which the war monitor said had secured for the pro-government forces control of all of southern Idlib.

Opposition sources said a counter-offensive was underway.

TURKEY-RUSSIA TALKS FALTER

The push on Saraqeb comes before an end-of-February deadline set by Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Ankara says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.

Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back and the spokesman of his AK Party, Omer Celik, said on Thursday preparations were complete.

“When the time given to the regime to withdraw expires, the Turkish Armed Forces will carry out their duties based on the orders they receive and nobody should doubt our determination about this,” Celik said.

Celik said work on a date for a meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Idlib was till ongoing. Turkish and Russian officials were holding a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday. Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have not yielded tangible progress.

As well as sending troops, tanks and artillery into the region across its border, Ankara has set up new outposts in what rebels say is preparation for a Turkish operation.

A senior opposition figure in touch with Turkey’s military said the Turkish-backed campaign would continue until the Syrian army was expelled from the buffer zone, and only then would serious negotiations begin over a settlement.

Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another influx and has closed the border. Some migrants have made homes along the border wall, using it to prop up tents and shelters.

Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said Saraqeb’s seizure eased pressure on rebels, who in recent days lost significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.

Saraqeb is at the crossroads of two highways linking the capital of Damascus, Syria’s second largest city Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.

Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.

U.N. adviser Rochdi said air strikes and shelling were affecting dozens of communities and villages in Idlib and Hama, and 11 medical facilities and 15 schools had been hit this month.

“There are reports of multiple children freezing to death. The needs of civilians in the northwest are exceeding the humanitarian response capacity,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrey Kuzmin and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Turkey will hit Syrian government forces anywhere if troops hurt: Erdogan

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday his military would strike Syrian forces by air or ground anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt as the Syrian government fought to regain control of northwestern Idlib province from rebels.

Thousands of civilians meanwhile were heading north to the Turkish-Syrian border, many trudging by foot through snow in freezing temperatures, to escape air strikes and artillery barrages by the Russian-supported government forces.

Erdogan said Turkey was determined to push the Syrian troops beyond Turkish observation posts in Idlib by the end of this month and that Ankara would not allow insurgents in Idlib to give them an excuse to attack.

In turn, the Kremlin accused Turkey of flouting agreements with Russia to neutralize militants in Idlib and said attacks on Syrian and Russian forces there were continuing.

Syrian troops and Iranian-backed militias have been advancing in Idlib in a campaign to destroy the last bastion of insurgents fighting for the past nine years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

An extensive campaign of air strikes and artillery shelling was underway along the M4 highway, which links Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the contested crossroads town of Saraqeb south of Idlib city, a humanitarian source said on Wednesday.

The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, in the biggest single wave of displacement of the conflict, leaving them desperate for shelter amid atrocious weather conditions.

Many villages along the M5 highway, running south from the city of Aleppo, were now deserted, the source said.

Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Assad, counter-attacked on Tuesday after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed by Syrian shelling in Idlib in the last 10 days.

“If there is the smallest injury to our soldiers on the observation posts or other places, I am declaring from here that we will hit the regime forces everywhere from today, regardless of Idlib’s borders or the lines of the Sochi agreement,” Erdogan said, referring to a 2018 ceasefire accord.

“We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating,” he told members of his AK Party in Ankara.

Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to establish what they called a de-escalation zone.

This month Ankara – which has the second-largest army in NATO – has poured some 5,000 troops and convoys of military vehicles across the border into Idlib, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and radar equipment to bolster its positions.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow remained committed to its deal with Ankara on Syria but that Russia considered militant attacks in Idlib unacceptable.

“The Turkish side undertook to ensure that terrorist groups in Idlib were neutralized,” he told reporters. “These groups are carrying out strikes from Idlib on Syrian forces and also taking aggressive action against our military facilities.”

WAVES OF DISPLACED

The Turkish military casualties have sparked some of the most serious confrontations between Ankara and Damascus in the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and made millions refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians in Turkey.

Ankara says it cannot handle another wave of refugees.

In the last five days, some 52,000 people have fled toward the border, mostly from the towns of Atarib and Darat Izza west of Aleppo city, said Selim Tosun, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media adviser in Syria.

In total, the number of people displaced since the fighting intensified in November was about 870,000, he said. Some 400 concrete block dwellings and 2,300 tents had been set up for the displaced people, 70% of whom are children, he said.

Speaking from the border area in northwest Syria, Tosun said traffic was jammed up for several kilometers. Cold weather, a lack of health facilities and the risk of epidemics were all threatening those on the move.

“They have been worn out by the war. They want at least some welfare and peace. They want the attacks to stop,” he said.

The U.N. regional spokesman on Syria, David Swanson, said people were fleeing by night in trucks or by foot in an effort to avoid the attacks.

“People are fleeing northwards not knowing where they will find shelter. Some are seeking shelter in host communities, in camps, makeshift shelters, abandoned buildings, schools, mosques and some people are out in the open in the cold and others are in their vehicles, having fled, and are trapped there. They are waking up each morning not knowing which direction to go,” he told Reuters from Turkey.

Many were also flocking into Idlib city, already host to tens of thousands of previously displaced people.

U.S. INCIDENT

Damascus and Moscow say the attacks are targeting hardline Islamist militants who control Idlib. Turkey says they are hitting civilians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed in a phone call the sides would continue contacts on Syria, the Kremlin said. Erdogan said he discussed with Putin the issue of the Turkish casualties.

The U.S. envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, met Erdogan aide Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara and the two sides said diplomatic efforts needed to be ramped up urgently to halt the wave of displaced, Anadolu news agency said.

Turkish artillery has been supporting the rebels as they battle to hold on to areas of Idlib. Russia has officers on the ground advising the Syrians on the campaign as well as some ground forces, and Russian warplanes have carried out numerous air strikes.

Separately, the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said its troops opened fire on Wednesday at a checkpoint in northeast Syria after they came under small arms fire, an incident that underscored the multi-faceted nature of the conflict.

(This story adds dropped words in paragraphs 3, 5)

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Emma Farge in Geneva, Tom Balmforth and Andrey Kuzmin in Moscow, Suleiman Khalidi in Amman; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Turkey, Russia can tackle Syria escalation ‘without anger’: Erdogan

By Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey and Russia should resolve differences over the conflict in Syria’s Idlib without anger, after a deadly flare-up in violence challenged the fragile cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.

The two countries support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, as well as in Libya’s escalating conflict, but have worked together to contain some of the bloodshed and have forged close defense ties in recent years.

An attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces that killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday posed the biggest challenge to Russian-Turkish ties since their 2018 deal to stem fighting in Syria’s northwest Idlib region.

Erdogan told Russian forces on Monday there to “stand aside” while Turkey struck dozens of targets in retaliation. Moscow and Ankara then argued about whether Turkey had told Russia it was sending waves of reinforcements into Idlib.

“There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage,” he was quoted as telling reporters on a flight from Ukraine.

“We will of course sit down and discuss everything. Not with anger, though. Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses,” Erdogan added.

Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria while Turkey backs rebels who once aimed to topple him.

Analysts said the relationship should survive the testy spell even while risks remained on the ground in Syria. Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees, fears Russian air strikes and a recent northward surge by Syrian troops threaten to send millions more refugees towards its border.

A Turkish security official said clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces continued intermittently on Tuesday around Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) east of Idlib city.

“Now we see more clearly the limits of the Turkey-Russia cooperation in Syria…and the question is have we reached a different level of escalation” given the attacks on Turkish troops, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

NO “PERMANENT BREAK”

But “this episode is not going to lead to a permanent break between Ankara and Moscow. They will find ways to overcome this… because both sides continue to rely on each other” to contain the situation in Idlib, he said.

Turkey’s foreign minister told his Russian counterpart to rein in Syrian forces and again warned of retaliation against provocative attacks on Turkish observation posts in Idlib set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.

“We also don’t accept the excuse of ‘we cannot fully control the regime’ here,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said of Russia.

The Turkish security official said Ankara had no plans to withdraw from its 12 observation posts in the area, even though some are now surrounded by Syrian government forces.

Moscow says it is concerned about attacks by militants who control Idlib, Syria’s last remaining major rebel stronghold.

Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian lawmaker, called the heightened fighting a “serious test of the strength of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements” in both Idlib and in northeast Syria, where the two countries have jointly patrolled.

The Idlib violence has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January.

United Nations regional spokesman David Swanson said 520,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of December and the numbers could swell further.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Erdogan says Turkey hits back after Syrian shells kill Turkish troops

By Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it struck dozens of Syrian government targets after five of its soldiers were killed in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, an incident that could test ties between Moscow and Ankara.

President Tayyip Erdogan said initial indications showed 30-35 Syrians were “neutralized” in Turkey’s response to what it called intense shelling of its soldiers in Idlib, the last major Syrian rebel stronghold after nearly nine years of war.

Turkey has reinforced Idlib, which lies just across its southern border with Syria, in a challenge to Damascus and its Russian backers.

Erdogan said Turkey had told Russian counterparts “they need to stand aside” in the escalating conflict, in which Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said Turkish military units came under fire overnight after moving within Idlib without notifying Russia, contradicting Ankara’s claim that it coordinated movements.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have made large advances in Idlib, prompting Turkey to warn it may launch a military operation there unless the fighting is halted.

Rebels fighting to oust Assad, some of whom have been backed by Turkey, have also launched counter-attacks against the territorial gains by Assad’s forces.

“We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so, whether it is with our artillery or mortars,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul.

“We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib,” he said before a flight to Kiev. “Those who question our determination will soon understand they made a mistake.”

A Turkish security official told Reuters the shelling that killed the soldiers occurred in the area of Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) to the east of Idlib city. Saraqeb lies at the junction of two main roads that Damascus seeks to fully control.

“Following the developments in Idlib in recent weeks, serious support was provided over the weekend to the troops, equipment and vehicles in the region,” the official said.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib. It has 12 military observation posts around the region, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.

Several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces. A spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said on Monday Turkey will view Syrian government forces around its posts as “targets”.

Erdogan accuses Russia of violating a 2017 “de-escalation” agreement to reduce fighting in the region, a charge Moscow denied on Friday.

REINFORCEMENTS

“Units of Turkish troops made movements inside the de-escalation zone … without notifying the Russian side, and came under fire from Syrian government forces on terrorists in the area to the west of Saraqib,” Russia’s defense ministry said.

The Syrian Observatory, a UK-based war monitor, said 13 members of the Syrian government forces were killed in Turkish shelling, even while a Syrian state TV correspondent said there had been no casualties among its government forces.

On Sunday the Observatory said some 320 Turkish trucks and military vehicles entered Idlib at Kafr Lusin crossing on Sunday, much more than usual, and went south.

Turkey’s defense ministry said Syrian shelling was carried out against its reinforcements, which were meant to prevent clashes in Idlib, despite prior coordination of their positions.

Erdogan said if talks between diplomats and generals fail to get results he will contact Russian President Vladimir Putin directly to try to resolve the situation.

“We told especially Russian counterparts that they are not our counterparts here, that it is the (Syrian) regime directly, and that they need to stand aside,” Erdogan said. “This is not okay, we are giving martyrs here, but our armed forces and our artillery … are keeping them under fire.”

He added F-16s are involved in Turkey’s operation against 40 points in Idlib.

However, the Russian defense ministry said Turkish planes did not violate Syria’s border and no air strikes on Syrian troops were recorded.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

Erdogan says Turkey may launch Syria offensive if Idlib attacks continue

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey may launch a military operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region unless fighting there is quickly halted, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday as attacks by Syrian government forces risked a new wave of refugees.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have made rapid advances in Idlib, the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, in an offensive which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The recent campaign has also raised tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib. It has 12 military observation posts around Idlib, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, and several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.

Erdogan accuses Russia of violating agreements to reduce the fighting in Idlib, a charge Moscow denied on Friday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Idlib was a haven for militants targeting Syrian troops and a Russian airbase in Syria.

Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan repeated Turkey could not handle a fresh influx of migrants and would not allow new threats near its borders, even if it meant resorting to military power as it did in three previous cross-border operations in northern Syria.

“We will do what is necessary when someone is threatening our soil. We will have no choice but to resort to the same path again if the situation in Idlib is not returned to normal quickly,” Erdogan said.

He also appeared to hold out the option of another operation in northeastern Syria, where in October Ankara targeted the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that it calls a terrorist group.

“We will not refrain from doing what is necessary, including using military force,” he said, adding Turkey wants stability and security in Syria.

Later on Friday, the Kremlin said Russia was fully compliant with its obligations in Idlib, but that it was deeply concerned about what it said were aggressive militant attacks on Syrian government forces and Russia’s Hmeimim air base.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad, has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, even while Iran, Russia and Turkey have said they seek a political solution to the conflict.

“We will not allow the regime to put our country under the constant threat of migrants by tormenting, attacking, spilling the blood of… its people,” Erdogan said.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Hugh Lawson)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Russia not abiding by Syria agreements: NTV

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara is losing patience with the military assault in Syria’s Idlib region, adding that Russia is violating agreements aimed at stemming conflict there, broadcaster NTV reported on Wednesday.

Renewed bombardments by Russia-backed Syrian government forces on Idlib have raised concern of a new refugee wave from the area which borders Turkey and is home to 3 million people.

Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides in Syria, agreed to work toward de-escalating the fighting in Idlib and creating a demilitarized zone under agreements in 2017 and 2018 known as the Astana and Sochi accords.

But fighting has continued in the last remaining rebel bastion in country’s nearly nine-year war despite several other agreements for a ceasefire, as recently as this month.

“Currently, Russia is not abiding by Astana or Sochi,” NTV quoted Erdogan as saying.

Speaking to reporters on his flight back from Senegal, he said Turkey, which is building houses in northern Idlib to shelter civilians fleeing the bombing, has told Russia that it is running out patience.

“If we are loyal partners with Russia on this, they have to put forth their stance… Our wish is that Russia immediately makes the necessary warnings to the regime which it sees as a friend,” he said.

“The Astana process has fallen into silence now. We need to look at what Turkey, Russia and Iran can do to revive the Astana process,” he said.

On Tuesday, Syrian government forces entered a town in the south of Idlib city, in a significant advance for President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey said it would retaliate against any attack on its 12 observation posts around Idlib.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said a Turkish military convoy of 30 vehicles, including 12 armored vehicles, entered Syria on Monday evening and was expected to establish a new observation post south of the town of Saraqeb in Idlib.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The number of Syrians fleeing attacks in the country’s northwestern Idlib province and heading toward Turkey has reached 120,000, a Turkish aid group said on Monday, adding it was setting up a camp for some of those uprooted.

Syrian and Russian forces have recently intensified their bombardment of targets in Idlib, which Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture, prompting a wave of refugees toward Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday Turkey cannot handle a fresh wave of migrants, warning that European countries will feel the impact of such an influx if violence in Syria’s northwest is not stopped.

“In the last week, the number of people fleeing from the southern regions (of Idlib) to the north because of the increasing attacks has reached 120,000,” said Selim Tosun, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media advisor in Syria.

Erdogan said on Sunday 80,000 people were currently on the move. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said 40,000 civilians had been displaced since Thursday, the start of the latest military operation.

Many of the migrants fled the city of Maraat al-Numan, with some going to camps near the Turkish border, while others have gone to stay with relatives or to the areas of Afrin and Azaz near the Turkish border, the IHH’s Tosun said.

The IHH said it had begun distributing 20,000 packages of food prepared for the migrants between the city of Idlib and the town of Sarmada. It was also preparing a tent camp in the area of Killi, a village some 13 km (8 miles) from the Turkish border.

Tosun said the camp for families will have 500 tents and can expand.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.7 million displaced Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world, after 8-1/2 years of civil war in Syria. Ankara fears another wave from the Idlib region, where up to 3 million Syrians live in the last significant rebel-held swathe of territory.

A Turkish delegation was traveling to Moscow on Monday for talks which were expected to focus in part on Syria and which Erdogan had said would determine Turkey’s course of action in the region.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad in the war, while Russia and Iran support Assad’s forces.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)