Erdogan asks Putin to step aside in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves after the Global Refugee Forum at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, December 17, 2019, REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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.

Government forces, backed by Russian airpower, have waged a major assault to capture the northwest province of Idlib, the last remaining territory held by rebels backed by Turkey.

With diplomacy sponsored by Ankara and Moscow to ease tensions in tatters, Turkey has come closer than ever to a confrontation with Russia on the battlefield.

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.

As tensions rose, Russia and Turkey have held three rounds of talks, the first two of which did not yield a ceasefire.

After the death of its soldiers in a Syrian government airstrike on Thursday, Turkey said it would allow migrants it hosts to freely pass to Europe.

Erdogan said in Istanbul on Saturday that 18,000 migrants have crossed the border, without immediately providing evidence, adding that the number could rise to 25,000-30,000 on Saturday.