Turkey warns Syria could ‘learn the hard way’ after Idlib conflict

ISTANBUL —Turkey’s ambassador to the United Nations on Friday said Ankara would not hesitate to retaliate if threatened by Syria, after deadly attacks in Idlib province severely escalated tensions between Turkey and Russian-backed Syrian forces.

“If they want to learn the hard way, they will,” Ambassador Feridun Hadi Sinirlioglu said during a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

“Turkey does not want war. But Turkey will not hesitate to use force if and when its security is threatened,” he added.

Turkey, which backs the rebels in Syria’s civil war, blamed an attack that killed 33 of its soldiers in the northwestern province of Idlib on Thursday on the Syrian government. Thirty-two others were wounded.

Moscow, which backs the Syrian government, denied any involvement. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar charged however that the attack continued even though the troops’ location was shared with Russia. Ambulances were also hit, he said.

Hours later, at least 16 Syrian soldiers were killed in Turkish airstrikes and shelling in the countryside of Idlib, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told dpa. A Syrian military source confirmed to dpa that Syrian military posts were hit by Turkish artillery.

In a phone call earlier on Friday, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to seek calm in tension saying their militaries need to better coordinate regarding Idlib, according a Kremlin statement.

Both sides said steps must be taken to “normalize” the Idlib situation, it said.

“Serious concern was expressed over the escalation in Idlib that has resulted in numerous victims, including Turkish servicemen,” the Kremlin statement said of the call.

The Kremlin later said Putin and Erdogan could meet in Moscow on March 5 or 6.

Ankara called for a no-fly zone in Syria after Thursday’s attack, which marked the single largest death toll in a day of Turkey’s soldiers in the region.

Deaths among Turkish soldiers in Idlib have surpassed 50 since early February, when Ankara started deploying more troops there to stave off a Syrian offensive.

During the UN Security Council meeting US ambassador Kelly Craft pledged Washington’s “full support” for Turkey to “respond in self-defence to unjustified attacks on Turkish observation posts that resulted in the deaths of their own forces.”

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, said Moscow took immediate efforts to “cease hostilities” once the incident became clear.

Meanwhile, Erdogan is yet to make a public announcement.

NATO allies condemned the “indiscriminate” airstrikes by the Syrian government and Russia and expressed solidarity with Turkey, which has the second-largest military in the alliance.

“I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back the U.N. efforts for a peaceful solution,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Ahead of the meeting, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate ceasefire in Idlib and described the deadly attacks as “one of the most alarming moments across the duration of the Syrian conflict.”

Damascus’ steady advances into rebel-held territory in Idlib, enabled by Russian air power, have displaced nearly 950,000 people, who are fleeing to Turkey’s border.

A massive refugee influx is the most pressing concern for Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Faced with this possible influx, Ankara said it was being forced to ease border controls for refugees trying to leave Turkey.

“There was only one step left” for Turkey to take “in an environment where it is left alone in hosting refugees and averting terrorism,” said Turkey’s Communications Director Fahrettin Altun.

“It should be known that the Syrian refugees are now a problem for not only Turkey but the whole world, in particular the countries in the region and Europe,” he said, according to state news agency Anadolu.

Turkish and Greek media reported that hundreds of migrants were heading or had arrived at Turkey’s borders with European Union members Greece and Bulgaria.

Greece closed its Kastanies-Pazarkule border crossing with Turkey, and it was not immediately clear when it would reopen. Police fired tear gas at a group of people moving toward the border, state broadcaster ERT said.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted that migrant arrivals will not be tolerated and that security was being increased on its borders.

Mitsotakis, who has been struggling to ease his country’s burden of having tens of thousands of migrants stranded on its soil, said: “Greece bears no responsibility for the tragic events in Syria and will not suffer the consequences of decisions taken by others.”

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said additional police were deployed to its border zone, adding that migrants were gathering on the Turkish side in Edirne. He also spoke with Erdogan by phone and said they had agreed to meet to discuss the migrant situation on Monday but did not specify where.

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