DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Violence in northwestern Syria has been a humanitarian crisis for months now, with a million Syrians huddling in camps near the Turkish border as they flee a Syrian and Russian offensive into rebel territory. Well, now a conflict there between Turkey, Russian and Syrian forces could be spiraling dramatically. Turkey, which supports the rebels, says at least 33 of its soldiers were killed in a Syrian airstrike that instantly doubled the number of Turkish casualties in February. Turkey says it's killed many Syrian forces and will now step up its attacks. Let's talk through what's happening with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who joins us from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So what is the latest here on this escalation?
KENYON: Well, it's Turkey's worst one-day loss of life since it got involved in this conflict some four years ago. It's being blamed on the Syrian military, but, of course, Russia is Syria's closest and biggest ally in this conflict. Turkey, as you mentioned, has been supporting some of the rebel groups who tried to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. With Russia's big help, Damascus effectively beat that effort back. Many rebels have wound up massed in northwest Idlib province, and that's where the regime has been focusing its attacks.
Now, this latest incident, one concern - could this lead to some kind of direct conflict between Russia and Turkey, which is a NATO ally? NATO convened an extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council today at Turkey's request. NATO says it's looking into what kind of support it can provide, but Turkey's specific call for a no-fly zone in Syria has not gotten any takers so far.
GREENE: But, I mean, you had Turkey's President Erdogan meeting late into the night with his security team. I mean, could they be coming up with some sort of major response here that could really escalate things?
KENYON: It's certainly possible. Erdogan says Turkey will not take one step back from Idlib. Ankara is promising the Syrian regime will pay a heavy price. Now, the action to back that up is what we're waiting to see. The military is talking about going after some 200 targets in Syria, not a lot of detail yet.
Turkey has also levelled another threat, saying refugees desperate to escape the conflict may soon be on their way toward Europe again. The last time that happened, European countries saw major protests about the flood of refugees, hastily put together a multibillion-euro deal with Turkey to keep them here and not send them on to Europe. Now that threat is back on the table. Perhaps it's a spur to get Europe more involved in de-escalating the situation. Erdogan also spoke with Russian leader Vladimir Putin by phone, and they reported that more needs to be done, but it's not clear what exactly that means.
GREENE: OK. So the leaders of Russia and Turkey speak. As you said, I mean, one big concern is if this became a larger conflict between Russia and a NATO ally. For the moment, Turkey blaming Syria for all this. What does that tell us about where this might be going?
KENYON: Well, the Syrian military is being blamed. Clearly, Russia, along with Iran, is the major ally to Syria. Russia's Defence Ministry is saying its forces weren't responsible, and it also says Moscow never even knew Turkish forces were in that area. Turkey's defense minister explicitly rejects that, saying Moscow knew very well. Turkey is not interested in conflict with the bigger Russian military. That's pretty clear. Does that mean there's room for talks, some kind of negotiations? Possibly, although they've already tried that. Turkey and Russia helped come up with the so-called Astana process cease-fire for a while, but then it fell apart. Secretary-general of the U.N. is calling for another cease-fire. But right now, Moscow's sending two warships towards the Syrian coast.
GREENE: And, Peter, just remind us about the overall situation in this part of Syria. I mean, it's a humanitarian disaster.
KENYON: Yes, and one that could get even worse. As the Syrian military attacks, a million people have been fleeing toward the Turkish border - freezing winter weather. Aid groups say let them in. Turkey says, no, we need a safe zone inside Syria. But northwest Syria right now seems anything but safe.
GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul. Peter, thanks.
KENYON: Thanks, David.
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