Turkish, Russian Leaders Talk as Fighting Continues in Syria

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.  Western support?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.