The presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke by phone Friday to try to defuse tensions that rose significantly in Syria after 33 Turkish troops were killed in a Syrian government airstrike, and a new wave of refugees and migrants headed for the Greek border by land and sea after Turkey said it would no longer hold them back.
The attack Thursday marked the deadliest day for the Turkish military since Ankara first entered the Syrian conflict in 2016 and also was the most serious escalation between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces, raising the prospect of an all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.
NATO envoys held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a NATO member. Turkey’s 28 allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths and urged de-escalation, but no additional NATO support was offered.
Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey's actions there, and European allies are concerned about any new wave of refugees.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long threatened to “open the gates” for millions to flee to Europe unless more international support was provided.
Greece and Bulgaria increased security at their borders with Turkey in preparation for an influx.
The crisis stems from a Syrian government offensive that began December 1 with Russian military support to retake Idlib province in northwestern Syria, the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria. Turkey, the main backer of the Syrian opposition, has lost 54 soldiers this month, including the latest fatalities, and now feels the need to respond strongly.
Thursday’s attack sharply raised the risk of direct military confrontation between Turkey and Russia, although Turkish officials blamed Syria for the airstrike. The Turkish stock market fell 10 percent, while the Turkish lira slid against the dollar.
In their phone call, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed implementing agreements in Idlib, the Kremlin said. Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s director of communications, said they had agreed to meet “as soon as possible.”
Two Russian frigates armed with cruise missiles were en route to the Syrian coast, Russian navy officials said. The Admiral Makarov and the Admiral Grigorovich of the Black Sea Fleet both previously took part in Russia's offensive in Syria. [AP]