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Putin, Erdogan Look To Ease Soaring Tensions After Deadly Syrian Air Strike

By RFE/RL February 29, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have held crisis talks amid rising tensions after 33 Turkish soldiers died in an air strike by Moscow-backed Syrian government warplanes.

At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo restated Washington's support for NATO ally Turkey, saying they were "reviewing options to assist" Ankara against Syrian and Russian "brutality."

And at the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the fighting that cost the lives of the Turkish soldiers in Syria as "one of the most alarming moments" of the nine-year civil war. He called for an immediate cease-fire.

The increased fighting in Idlib Province raised new concerns for civilians caught up in the long conflict. The UN said nearly a million people, about half of them children, have been displaced since December by the fighting amid the bitter winter weather.

The leaders of Turkey and Russia appeared to make an effort to ramp down tensions between their countries following the deadly incident, with the Kremlin saying the two expressed "serious concern" about the situation.

"There is always room for dialogue," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

He said the leaders spoke of "the necessity to do everything" to implement a 2018 cease-fire in Idlib brokered by the two countries that has since collapsed.

Although Russian warplanes generally back Syrian forces, Erdogan put the blame for the deadly attack directly on the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Erdogan may travel to Moscow for talks next week.

Separately, Trump "reaffirmed" U.S. support for Turkey in an earlier call with Erdogan while he demanded that Assad, Russia, and Iran halt their offensive in Idlib Province -- the last rebel-held area in the region.

Trump "reaffirmed his support for Turkey's efforts to de-escalate the situation in northwest Syria and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe," the White House said, without giving specifics about the support.

Meanwhile, the Turkish presidency said Erdogan and Trump agreed on measures to avoid a "humanitarian tragedy" in Idlib.

"The two leaders agreed on additional steps without delay in order to avert a big humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the Idlib region," it said in a statement.

Secretary of State Pompeo echoed Trump's comments in a statement on February 28, saying, "We stand by our NATO ally Turkey in the aftermath of the despicable and brazen February 27 attack on Turkish forces in Idlib."

"The actions of the Assad regime, Russia, the Iranian regime, and Hizballah are directly preventing the establishment of a cease-fire in northern Syria," Pompeo added.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Turkey had blamed the Assad government for the deadly air strike, but he said that Russia closely planned all operations with Syria.

"Russia is responsible for this offensive -- period," the official said in a briefing.

The idea of the "pathetic, keelhauled, draftee Assad military forces fighting the Turks and some of the opposition laughable," he said.

The fighting has raised concerns that NATO member Turkey could come into direct combat against Russian forces in Syria.

Russia, along with Iran, has provided crucial political, military, and financial support to Assad during the country's civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions since it began with a crackdown on anti-government protesters in March 2011.

More than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict began.

The United States and Turkey have backed differing rebel groups, while extremists linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State also entered the conflict, although they have mostly been driven from their strongholds.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa

Source: talk-turkish-soldiers-killed-syrian- russia-trump-pompeo/30461012.html

Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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