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. Meanwhile, Russia's and Turkey's presidents spoke, as Ankara threatens to launch even more assaults on Russian-backed Syrian forces.
"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.
Ankara's assault came in retaliation for an airstrike Turkey blamed on Syrian forces that killed 33 Turkish soldiers in Syria's Idlib province on Thursday.
The deadly airstrike followed Turkish forces backing Syrian rebels in an attack to recapture the strategically important town of Saraqeb. Idlib is the last rebel enclave, which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is vowing to retake.
Ankara says it struck all known Syrian military targets and that it is now assessing operations in preparation for further attacks.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has issued an ultimatum for Damascus forces, by Saturday, to 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.
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. In a bid to defuse tensions, Erdogan spoke with Putin by phone Friday.
"The two leaders will meet in-person as soon as possible," said Fahrettin Altun, presidential communication directorate.
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.
U.S. President Donald Trump also spoke with Erdogan on 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 was 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.
Deaths of Turkish soldiers
Moscow and Ankara are engaged in a blame game over the killing of the Turkish soldiers. The Russian defense ministry accused Turkey's military of failing to inform Russian forces on the ground of the location of its soldiers.
"This attack occurred even though the locations of our troops had been coordinated with Russian officials in the field," Turkish Defense Minister Akar asserted.
"We fought Russia 16 times in the past, and we will do it again, our vengeance will be quite terrible," Erdogan's foreign affairs adviser, Mesut Casin, said in a television interview.
The Turkish president himself has avoided wielding harsh rhetoric against Moscow, notes former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who is now an analyst and host for Turkish online network Medyascope.
"It should be emphasized we didn't hear from Ankara that it was the Russian planes attacking the Turkish armed forces," said Selcen. "Yet yes, there is no other possibility that the Russian air forces are the ones attacking the Turkish armed forces. The fact that Ankara doesn't declare this officially means that they are trying to avoid an all-out breakdown with Moscow."
Russian and Turkish diplomats all week were engaged in efforts to end the violence in the Syrian city of Idlib. Moscow is expected to present again to Ankara its proposal of creating a narrow buffer zone in Idlib along Turkey's border for rebels and their families to withdraw. But analysts say Ankara remains vehemently opposed.
"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?"
With Turkey already hosting over three and half million Syrians who fled the civil war, Erdogan has said his country can take no more.
Idlib hosts over three 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 that 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.
Hundreds of refugees and migrants have already moved to Greek and Bulgarian borders.
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 Altun.
Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO Friday, but while receiving words of solidarity, no concrete measures of support were agreed on.
Erdogan has recently called for the deployment of American Patriot missile system to offer protection for Syrian civilians and Turkish forces on the ground in Idlib.
But experts warn that there appears little support for any action that brings the risk of a military confrontation with Russian forces. Underlining Moscow's commitment to Damascus, Friday saw two of Russia's warships pass through Istanbul en route to Syria to reinforce its Syrian military presence.
VOA's Steve Herman contributed to this report.