NEWS / MIDDLE EAST
Turkey denies flouting agreement with Russia in Syria
Turkey dismissed on Saturday Russian accusations that it has flouted de-escalation agreements with Russia and Iran in Syria's Idlib province, and threatened to take military action in the area if diplomatic efforts with Moscow fail.
Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria's war, agreed in 2018 to set up a de-escalation zone in the northwestern province. But their fragile cooperation has been disrupted by a Syrian government offensive in Idlib, in which 13 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the past two weeks.
Ankara has said it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February, and President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey will strike government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier was hurt.
Erdogan discussed the situation in separate phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday, but there was no immediate word of a diplomatic breakthrough.
Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, says Turkey, which has poured military forces into Idlib, has aggravated the situation and failed to neutralise militants there.
But Turkey blames the situation on the advances by Syrian government forces in Idlib.
"We cannot overlook the cruelty happening in our neighbour," Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay told broadcaster NTV. "Turkey has fulfilled its responsibilities in Idlib."
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey wanted to resolve matters with Russia over Idlib through diplomacy. But, speaking during an international security conference in Munich, he added: "If it won't work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps."
Despite the tough rhetoric, Russian and Turkish officials are talking behind the scenes. Turkish and Russian officials held talks in Ankara on Saturday and Cavusoglu said a Turkish delegation would go to Moscow on Monday for talks.
Cavusoglu also had talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on Saturday - the first ministerial level meeting between Ankara and Moscow since the situation deteriorated in Idlib.
Cavusoglu tweeted that he had a "positive meeting" with Lavrov but that Turkey would not be "making an evaluation" until after Monday's talks in Moscow. Lavrov said Russia had very good ties with Turkey, but the sides did not always agree on issues.
Cavusoglu was also quoted by Russian news agencies as saying differences over Syria should not affect Ankara's relations with Moscow or disrupt a contract for the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems which has strained Turkey's ties with Washington.
Erdogan said his phone call with Putin - his second since the Turkish troops were killed - had been positive and that statements by other Russian officials that criticised Turkey did not reflect the tone of the call.