Turkish troops killed in Syria ahead of key Russia meeting

Fire engulfs green government buses -- which are used to evacuate refugees from areas of fighting -- in Syria's northwest Idlib province. File Photo by SANA/EPA-EFE

March 4 (UPI) — Two more Turkish troops have died in battle-scarred northwest Syria amid ongoing assaults from government forces, officials said Wednesday.

Ankara’s defense ministry said the soldiers were killed in Idlib province and six others were injured. Idlib has been a location of near constant fighting for months, as government forces and rebels vie for the territory.

The ministry said Turkey retaliated by targeting Syrian military targets.

The fighting occurred ahead of a meeting Thursday between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The two may work to reinforce a safe zone in the contested province near Syria’s border with Turkey.

Erdogan is expected to press Putin, an ally to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to retreat from Idlib so civilians can return. Nearly 1 million Syrians have been displaced by the fighting since December.

Turkey, a NATO member, has called for U.S. military support and Washington’s Syria envoy, James Jeffrey, was scheduled to meet with Turkish officials Wednesday in Ankara.

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Turkey has long felt the brunt of the fighting in Syria because it’s taken in millions of Syrian refugees — and Erdogan believes acting militarily in Idlib will mitigate the flow across the border. In response to the large refugee numbers, Erdogan has called on the European Union for more help with the displaced — and has stopped preventing them from migrating to Greece.

Humanitarian group Syria Civil Defense, or the White Helmets, said it has met with Jeffrey and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield about the conditions in Idlib.

“We stressed the need to protect the millions of civilians in northern Syria, who live at the mercy of missiles and airstrikes, as well as the role of our White Helmets in providing them with ongoing assistance, stabilizing them after the catastrophe and sowing hope in their hearts,” the group tweeted.

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