Putin, Erdogan look to defuse Syria crisis at talks

MOSCOW: The leaders of Russia and Turkey met in Moscow on Thursday after a surge in fighting in Syria raised fears of their armies clashing and launched a new migrant crisis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping Russia’s Vladimir Putin will agree to a rapid ceasefire in Idlib, the northwestern province of Syria where Ankara is battling Moscow-backed government forces.
“The entire world has its eyes fixed on us,” Erdogan said at the start of the talks, stressing that decisions were needed to “calm the region and our two countries”.
Putin said the situation in Idlib had become so tense that it was time for “a direct personal conversation” between them.
Pointing to the losses suffered by both Turkish and Syrian forces, Putin said: “We need to talk about everything, so that nothing like this happens again and it does not destroy Russian-Turkish relations.”
Intense fighting has killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib in recent weeks, as Ankara for the first time launched a direct offensive against President Bashar al Assad’s forces.
The Syrian government’s attempt to take Idlib has forced close to a million civilians to flee their homes and prompted Erdogan to open Turkey’s border with Greece to refugees and migrants.
Turkey has demanded European Union support for its actions in Syria and some in the bloc have accused Erdogan of using migrants as “blackmail”.
Ankara wants Assad’s forces to cease their assault on the province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, and pull back behind lines agreed under a 2018 deal with Russia brokered in Sochi.
Turkey said on Wednesday that at least two more Turkish soldiers had been killed in Idlib, after 34 died in an air strike last week blamed on Damascus.
Turkey officially declared an operation against the Assad government over the weekend. It has since downed three Syrian warplanes and killed dozens of soldiers and allied fighters, according to monitors.
Fighting continued in the province on Thursday, with Russian air strikes killing at least 15 civilians gathered outside the town of Maaret Misrin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen urged Putin and Erdogan to find an “immediate diplomatic solution” to the crisis “that could spare civilians further suffering”.