A Turkish military convoy is seen moving through eastern Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2020, a day after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in the province in an airstike by Syrian government forces.
A Turkish military convoy is seen moving through eastern Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 28, 2020, a day after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in the province in an airstike by Syrian government forces.

ISTANBUL - Fears of an escalating conflict in Syria grew Friday as Turkish forces pounded Syria's military in retaliation for the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers.

In the aftermath of the violence, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the country would no longer try to keep migrants from reaching Europe.  

Thousands of migrants have gathered at Turkey's borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Greek police fired tear gas Saturday at migrants trying to cross into the country.

With Turkey already hosting over three-and-a-half million Syrians who fled the civil war, Erdogan has said his country can take no more.  

Idlib hosts over 3 million Syrians, the United Nations said this month. Nearly a million had been forced from their homes from recent fighting, many of whom are already on the Turkish border.  

In a move seen as putting pressure on the European Union, the spokesman of the ruling AKP Omer Celik declared Friday Turkey is "no longer able to hold refugees," seeking to enter Europe. Local media reported free buses were being provided to take people to the border or sea crossing points to Greece.

Migrants struggle to board a bus to head to the Greek border, in Istanbul, Turkey, Feb. 28, 2020.

"The Syrian border with Turkey is still extremely porous, and there is no guarantee those people will stay there with Assad breathing down their necks," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners. "You are essentially condemning these people to an eternal life of joblessness which offers them no future, and 'what would you do if Assad tanks moved into these camps?'"

Ankara is looking to its Western allies to support its forces in Syria. "The international community must act to protect civilians and impose a no-fly-zone," tweeted Fahrettin Altun, communications director at the Turkish presidency.

Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO Friday, but while receiving words of solidarity, no concrete measures of support were agreed on.

Russia's and Turkey's presidents spoke by telephone Friday but appeared to reach no agreement on cooling down either the rhetoric or the fighting.

The Kremlin said the leaders agreed on the need for "additional measures" to normalize the situation, and that there was the "possibility" of a summit soon.

"The two leaders will meet in-person as soon as possible," said  Altun.  

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, while backing rival sides in the Syrian civil war, have been working closely to resolve the conflict.

But Thursday's deadly airstrike is seen posing the biggest threat to the recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

People react by the coffin for Emin Yildirim, one of the 33 Turkish soldiers killed on Thursday in a Syrian army attack in the Idlib region of Syria, at his funeral in Hatay, Turkey, Feb. 29, 2020.

"Turkish forces destroyed five Syrian regime choppers, 23 tanks, 10 armored vehicles, 23 howitzers, five ammunition trucks - as well as three ammunition depots, two equipment depots, a headquarters, and 309 regime troops," Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters close to the Syrian-Turkish border.

Erdogan has issued an ultimatum for Damascus forces to, by Saturday, give up recent gains and retreat back behind a de-escalation zone agreed between Ankara and Moscow in 2018 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

U.S. President Donald Trump also spoke with Erdogan Friday. In a statement, the White House said Trump condemned the attack on Turkish personnel in Syria and "reaffirmed his support for Turkey’s efforts to de-escalate the situation in northwest Syria and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe."

The statement added that Trump and Erdogan "agreed that the Syrian regime, Russia and the Iranian regime must halt their offensive before more innocent civilians are killed and displaced."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is reviewing options to assist Turkey following the attack.

"We stand by our NATO Ally Turkey in the aftermath of the despicable and brazen February 27 attack on Turkish forces in Idlib, which resulted in the death of dozens of Turkish soldiers,” he said in a statement.


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