REYHANLI, Turkey (AP) — The presidents of Turkey and Russia spoke over the phone Friday, a day after Syrian government airstrikes killed 33 Turkish troops, significantly ratcheting up tensions between Ankara and Moscow. It was the highest number of Turkish soldiers killed in a single day since Ankara intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2016.
The development was the most serious escalation in the war between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces and raised the prospect of all-out war with millions of Syrian civilians trapped in the middle.
NATO envoys held emergency talks at the request of Turkey, a NATO member, and scores of refugees converged on Turkey’s border with Greece, seeking entry into Europe after Turkey said it was “no longer able to hold refugees.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, has long threatened to “open the gates” for millions of refugees to flee to Europe unless more international support is provided.
Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy warned the movement of refugees to the West could continue if the situation in Idlib deteriorated.
“Some asylum-seekers and migrants in our country, worried about developments, have begun to move toward our western borders,” he said. “If the situation worsens this risk will continue to increase.” However, he said there was “no change” in Turkey’s immigration policy.
Refugees headed to the land border with Greece, taking minibuses and taxis from Istanbul. Dozens waited at the Turkish side of the border gate at Pazarkule.
Others headed to Turkey’s west coast to try to reach the Greek islands a short distance away. Turkish NTV showed around 20 people clambering aboard a rubber dinghy at Ayvacik, northwest Turkey, in daylight on Friday and setting off for the island of Lesbos.
A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region, shouting “open the borders.” Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorization.
The latest crisis stems from a Russian-backed Syrian government military campaign to retake Idlib province, which is the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria. The offensive, which began Dec. 1, has triggered the largest single wave of displacement in Syria’s nine-year war, sending nearly 950,000 people fleeing to areas near the Turkish border for safety. Ankara, the Syrian rebels’ last supporter, sealed its borders in 2015 and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees.
Turkey has had 54 soldiers killed in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province since the beginning of February, including the latest fatalities, and feels the need to respond strongly.
Turkey’s DHA news agency reported Friday that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.
Omer Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” after the Syrian attack — reiterating a standing threat by Ankara.
The Thursday night attack in Idlib sharply raises the risk of direct military confrontation between Turkey and Russia, although Turkish officials blamed Syria, not Russia, for the attack. The Turkish stock market fell by 10% after the airstrike, and the Turkish lira slid against the dollar.
Rhami Dogan, the governor of Turkey’s Hatay province bordering Idlib, said in addition to the 33 soldiers killed, 32 troops wounded in the attack were being treated in hospitals.
Turkey is a main backer of the Syrian opposition while Russia has been giving military support to the weekslong Syrian government offensive in Idlib.
The Kremlin said Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed implementing agreements in Idlib.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Luxembourg, said Russia remains committed to the agreements reached by Putin and Erdogan. Commenting on the deaths of the Turkish troops in Idlib on Thursday, the minister said that if the agreements between the two countries’ armies — “including sharing of accurate coordinates of the Turkish troops’ location” — had been implemented in full, “such tragedies could have been avoided.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the Turkish troops that came under fire in Idlib were deployed among “terrorist battle formations.” They were in the area of Behun, and according to coordinates given to Russia’s Reconciliation Center in Syria, “There were no Turkish military units in the area … and there weren’t supposed to be,” the ministry said.
Russian air forces did not carry out airstrikes in the area, it said, and after receiving information about Turkish casualties, “the Russian side took all the necessary measures in order for the Syrian forces to stop the fire.”
Meanwhile, two Russian frigates carrying cruise missiles have been deployed to Syria, Russian navy officials said Friday. Admiral Makarov and Admiral Grigorovich of the Black Sea Fleet are en route to the Syrian coast with Kalibr cruise missiles on board. Both warships previously took part in Russia’s offensive in Syria.
Syrian state news agency SANA carried a brief report saying Turkey has acknowledged its forces were killed “in operations of the Syrian Arab Army against a terrorist organization,” and that Syrian troops at the time were repelling attacks by “terrorist groups backed by Turkey.”
Erdogan held a six-hour emergency security meeting in Ankara late Thursday, the Anadolu news agency reported. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevult Cavusoglu spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg by telephone while Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, who plays a senior role in foreign affairs, spoke to U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, said after the attack on Turkish troops Turkey’s armed forces shelled Syrian army positions in Idlib, killing at least 16 soldiers. It gave no details and there was no comment from Syria’s state media.
In recent weeks Turkey has sent thousands of troops, tanks and other equipment to Idlib. As recently as Wednesday, Erdogan gave the Syrian government until the end of February to pull back from its recent advances or face Turkish “intervention.”
Turkey provides some of the militants with direct support and has accused Syria of breaking a 2018 agreement to reduce the conflict in Idlib. Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad have said Turkey has failed to honor a deal to separate extremist groups from other fighters in the region.
The situation in Idlib “threatens our national survival” said Devlet Bahceli, who heads the nationalist party allied to Erdogan’s government.
After the airstrike, angry crowds gathered outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul, Anadolu said. Standing in front of a line of riot police and a water cannon, they chanted, “Murderer Russia, murderer Putin.”
The Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters retook a strategic northwestern town from government forces on Thursday, cutting a key highway just days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012.
Despite losing the town of Saraqeb, Assad’s forces made major gains to the south. Assad controls almost the entire southern part of Idlib province after capturing more than 20 villages Thursday, state media and opposition activists said. It’s part of a weekslong campaign backed by Russian air power into Syria’s last rebel stronghold.