ISTANBUL - Turkey called on the international community Friday to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to protect hundreds of thousands of civilians from airstrikes by government forces in the Idlib region.
Fahrettin Altun, communications director at the Turkish presidency, said via Twitter, that Russia and Iran, the backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, “will lose all their credibility if they fail on their commitment to reduce violence and hostilities in Idlib.
“Millions of civilians are being bombarded by air for months now. Infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, is being targeted by the regime systematically. A genocide is happening slowly before our eyes. Those with conscious and dignity must speak up,” Altun said.
The Syrian regime has been “pursuing demographic and ethnic cleansing in this region,” Altun said. “We cannot look the other way!”
Meanwhile, ambassadors from NATO countries are holding emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a member of the alliance.
The U.S. Defense Department said Secretary Mark Esper spoke to his Turkish counterpart Thursday and they discussed Idlib and Libya.
“We are exploring ways the United States can work together with Turkey and the international community,” the Pentagon said in reference to the call.
On Thursday, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed and 32 wounded in an airstrike by Syrian government forces in the Idlib region.
Meanwhile, as fighting in Syrian Idlib province is escalating, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is claiming rebels backed by Turkish troops have recaptured a strategic town from Damascus forces.
“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,” Erdogan said in a speech Thursday.
Syrian rebels, reportedly backed by Turkish special forces and artillery, recaptured the town of Saraqeb on Thursday. The northwestern town is pivotal to both sides because of its location at the crossroads of two main highways.
Turkey has deployed thousands of soldiers backed by hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles in Idlib in a bid to thwart an offensive by Damascus to seize control of the last rebel stronghold.
Fighting in Idlib is set to escalate further, with Ankara’s ultimatum to Damascus to give up all of its recent Idlib military gains by the end of February.
“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,” said Omer Celik, spokesman of Turkey’s ruling AKP.
Diplomatic talks between Turkey and Russia in Ankara to resolve the Idlib crisis ended in deadlock Thursday.
“To find a middle ground between Russia and Turkey seems difficult,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who is now an analyst and host for Medyascope, an online news channel.
“There is a narrow window of opportunity to find this middle ground,” he added. “But it’s difficult, if not impossible, for Erdogan to find this reverse gear and to pull out (militarily) of half if not more from this Idlib pocket. This is a really worrying point, because any little error can blow this to full-out war between Syria and Turkey,” Selcen said.
While Ankara and Moscow back rival sides in the civil war, the two countries are cooperating to end the conflict. But Idlib is straining bilateral ties.
In an apparent snub, Moscow rejected Erdogan’s call for Turkey to host a four-way summit March 5 with Russia, France and Germany.
The Kremlin is reportedly offering an alternative gathering involving only Russia, Iran and Turkey.
But whatever the format of any international gathering to resolve Idlib, analysts say there appears to be little common ground between Moscow and Ankara.
The United Nations says nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by recent fighting in Idlib. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to the Turkish border.
With Turkey hosting more than 3.5 million Syrians, Erdogan has repeatedly warned Turkey cannot take in any more refugees.