Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that he had asked President Vladimir Putin for Russia to step aside in Syria and leave Turkey to deal with Syrian government forces alone, after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed this week, Reuters reported.
Government forces, backed by Russian air power, have waged a major assault to capture the northwest province of Idlib, the last remaining territory held by rebels backed by Turkey.
Syrian and Russian warplanes on Saturday kept up air strikes on the Idlib city of Saraqeb, the Syrian Observatory war monitor reported. The strategic city sits on a key international roadway and has been a flashpoint of fighting in recent days.
With diplomacy sponsored by Ankara and Moscow to ease tensions in tatters, Turkey has come closer than ever to confrontation with Russia on the battlefield.
Turkish strikes using drones and smart missiles late on Friday that hit Hezbollah headquarters near Saraqeb killed nine of its members and wounded 30 in one of the bloodiest attacks on the Iran-backed group in Syria ever according to a commander in the regional alliance backing Damascus.
The Observatory said 48 pro-Damascus troops in all had been killed by Turkish strikes over the past 24 hours.
Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan said he had told Putin in a phone call to stand aside and let Turkey “to do what is necessary” with the Syrian government alone. He said Turkey does not intend to leave Syria right now.
“We did not go there because we were invited by (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). We went there because we were invited by the people of Syria. We don’t intend to leave before the people of Syria, ‘okay, this is done,” Erdogan added.
As tensions rose, Russia and Turkey have held three rounds of talks, the first two of which did not yield a ceasefire.