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Erdogan Tells Putin To Let Turkey 'Do What Is Necessary' In Syria's Idlib

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Smoke rises after an air strike in Saraqeb in Idlib Province on February 28.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he has told President Vladimir Putin for Russia to stand aside in Syria to let Turkey deal with Syrian government forces alone, after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian air strike this week.

Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, have waged a major assault to capture the northwestern province of Idlib, part of the last remaining territory held by rebels backed by Turkey.

Syrian and Russian warplanes on February 29 kept up air strikes on the Idlib city of Saraqeb, the Syrian Observatory war monitor reported. The strategic city is located on a key highway that has been a flashpoint of fighting in recent days.

Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan said he had told Putin in a phone call to stand aside and let Turkey "do what is necessary." He said Turkey did not intend to leave Syria right now.

"We went there because we were invited by the people of Syria. We don't intend to leave before the people of Syria say, 'Okay, this is done,'" Erdogan added.

As tensions rose, three rounds of talks between Russia and Turkey failed to yield a cease-fire.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on February 29 the two sides agreed in this week's talks to reduce tensions in Idlib while continuing military action there.

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Doha the Idlib issue can be settled only in a meeting between Erdogan and Putin, which he said would take place on March 5 or 6.

Following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Cavusoglu said Turkey wanted the United States to send Patriot missile systems as support in Idlib.

The increased fighting in Idlib Province has forced civilians to flee, raising pressure on Turkey to open its now closed border with Syria and offer refuge to desperate Syrian civilians.

In an apparent reference to the growing humanitarian crisis in Idlib, Erdogan said Turkey "can't handle a new wave of migration."

Erdogan said Turkey would not stand in the way of refugees and migrants already in the country who hope to head to Europe.

"We will not close the gates to refugees," he said. "The European Union has to keep its promises. We are not obliged to look after and feed so many refugees."

Under a 2016 deal with the EU, Turkey agreed to stem the tide of refugees to Europe in return for financial aid after more than a million people entered Europe in 2015.

Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and many others fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East use it as a staging post and transit point to reach Europe, usually through neighboring Greece.

On February 29, Greek officials arrested 70 migrants who tried to cross the border from Turkey.

Separately, President Donald Trump "reaffirmed" U.S. support for Turkey in an earlier call with Erdogan while he demanded that Assad, Russia, and Iran halt their offensive in Idlib Province -- the last rebel-held area in the region.

Trump "reaffirmed his support for Turkey’s efforts to de-escalate the situation in northwest Syria and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe," the White House said, without giving specifics about the support.

Meanwhile, the Turkish presidency said Erdogan and Trump agreed on measures to avoid a "humanitarian tragedy" in Idlib.

"The two leaders agreed on additional steps without delay in order to avert a big humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the Idlib region," it said in a statement.

Secretary of State Pompeo echoed Trump's comments in a statement on February 28, saying, "We stand by our NATO ally Turkey in the aftermath of the despicable and brazen February 27 attack on Turkish forces in Idlib."

"The actions of the Assad regime, Russia, the Iranian regime, and Hizballah are directly preventing the establishment of a cease-fire in northern Syria," Pompeo added.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Turkey had blamed the Assad government for the deadly air strike, but he said that Russia closely planned all operations with Syria.

"Russia is responsible for this offensive -- period," the official said in a briefing.

The idea of the "pathetic, keelhauled, draftee Assad military forces fighting the Turks and some of the opposition forces...is laughable," he said.

The fighting has raised concerns that NATO member Turkey could come into direct combat against Russian forces in Syria.

Russia, along with Iran, has provided crucial political, military, and financial support to Assad during the country’s civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions since it began with a crackdown on anti-government protesters in March 2011.

More than 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the conflict began.

The United States and Turkey have backed differing rebel groups, while extremists linked to Al-Qaeda and Islamic State also entered the conflict, although they have mostly been driven from their strongholds.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and dpa
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