NATO called on the Syrian government and its Russian backer to return to the terms of a ceasefire in northwest Syria after an airstrike blamed on the regime killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib province, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said following urgent talks on Friday, February 28.
“Allies condemn the continued indiscriminate airstrikes by the Syrian regime and Russia in Idlib province,” Stoltenberg told reporters after North Atlantic Council talks in Brussels. “I call on them to stop their offensive, to respect international law, and to back U.N. efforts for a peaceful solution.”
“This dangerous situation must be de-escalated,” he added.
Stoltenberg called on the sides to return to the terms of the 2018 Sochi agreement that provided for a ceasefire in the devastated province.
The NATO leader said allies would continue to follow developments and were “constantly looking into what more they can do,” for Turkey but did not offer any new measures that the alliance might take.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu requested Article 4 consultations with its NATO allies after an airstrike killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province late Thursday.
Under article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, any NATO member can request consultations whenever it believes its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.
Turkey blamed the strike on Syrian government forces rather than Russia, which supports President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and provides air cover for Syrian Arab Army operations. Russia too has denied that it conducted any strike, with the defense ministry saying that Turkish troops were killed by artillery fire from Syrian troops trying to repel rebels.
Russia said the Turkish soldiers were “embedded” with terrorists and vowed not to stop the offensive in Idlib.
But both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a Friday phone call that “new measures” were needed to normalize the situation, the Kremlin said.
The strike threatens to further raise tensions between the two foreign powers which back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war. Earlier Thursday three other Turkish forces were killed in an airstrike in another part of Idlib. The governor of Turkey’s Hatay province said 33 troops were killed in the later strike, but other reports put the number between 30 and 37.
Turkish forces launched reprisals against regime targets in Idlib on Friday, while Russia dispatched the frigates the Admiral Makarov and the Admiral Grigorovich towards Syria.
Ankara has urged regime forces to pull back by the end of February from behind Turkey’s military outposts in Idlib, a number of which have been surrounded by during the offensive.
Turkey set up 12 observation posts after a deal in 2018 with Moscow, whom Ankara has worked with closely despite backing opposite sides in the conflict.
E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said he feared the violence could slide into a major international conflict.
“It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger,” he tweeted.
The United Nations has previously warned that fighting near camps for displaced people is putting millions of civilians at risk and overwhelming aid efforts.
Russia and the Syrian government consider all of the rebels fighting Assad’s forces to be terrorists. Idlib, the last rebel pocket in the country following nine years of civil war, is largely controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, but is home to millions of people displaced from other parts of the country. Nearly a million people have fled towards Turkey in recent weeks after the regime launched its current offensive.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Wednesday that an estimated 948,000 people have been displaced since December 1.