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Erdogan says four-power Syria summit to be held on 5 March

Announcement comes day after France and Germany called for summit involving Turkish and Russian leaders
Aerial view shows Turkish military convoy that crossed into Syrian territory passing near city of Idlib on Saturday (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said he would hold a summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany on 5 March to discuss the escalating violence in Syria's last rebel enclave of Idlib. 

The announcement comes a day after France and Germany called for a four-party summit involving the Turkish and Russian leaders and following an Erdogan phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and teleconference with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

"I expressed our determination [on Idlib] clearly to Putin yesterday. I also mentioned it to Merkel and Macron," Erdogan said. "On March 5, we will meet with Putin, Macron and Merkel, and we will talk about these again," Reuters quoted him as saying.

Erdogan did not say where the summit would take place, but speaking to reporters after Friday prayers he confirmed that Macron and Merkel had proposed a Syria summit in Istanbul, AFP reported.

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A months-long offensive by Russia-backed Syrian troops against rebels backed by Turkey in northwest Idlib has seen close to a million civilians flee the violence.

Macron and Merkel on Friday "expressed their willingness to meet President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan to find a political solution to the crisis," the German chancellor's office said.

Russia on Wednesday objected to the UN Security Council adopting a statement that would have called for a ceasefire in Idlib, diplomats said, after a tense closed-door meeting.

Turkey has threatened an "imminent" operation in Idlib after its troops have come under intense fire from government forces, and has given Damascus until the end of this month to move away from Turkish army positions.

Still, Turkish forces have no protection from Russian air power, noted Melik Kaylan, writing in Forbes.

MEE reported earlier this week that Turkey had asked the US to support its military operation by conducting aerial patrols and giving it two batteries of Patriot missiles.

Erdogan held a phone call with US President Donald Trump, but the White House had not given any indications that it would provide tangible support for Turkey's operations along its southern border, MEE reported.

Meanwhile, one Turkish soldier died on Saturday from government fire in Idlib, the defence ministry said earlier. 

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The Turkish military retaliated and destroyed 21 government targets following "the despicable attack", it added. 

The latest casualty brings the number of Turkish personnel killed in clashes this month to 17.

Ahead of the attack, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to discuss ways of finding a solution to the violence in Idlib, the ministry said.

Ankara has 12 observation posts there as part of a 2018 deal with Russia and beefed up its military positions with howitzers, tanks and commandoes in recent weeks.

The flurry of diplomatic activity comes after the violence in Idlib has prompted an exchange of threats between Ankara and Moscow. 

A key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has accused Ankara of failing to act against "terrorist groups in Idlib", which Turkey denies.

Idlib is held by an array of rebel groups dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, which is led by members of the country's former al-Qaeda franchise.

Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan's top media aide, said on Saturday that Russia's support for the government of Bashar al-Assad "worsens the already terrible humanitarian situation", in a series of messages on Twitter. 

Syrian refugees

Ankara has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe and fears an influx of refugees from Idlib, as it is already home to 3.6 million Syrians.

"Nothing can be the justification for driving millions of innocent Syrians out of their homes," Altun said.

"We have fought very determinedly against terror groups in the region. Russia should not allow the regime to make terror groups an excuse for ethnic cleansing."

On Friday, Erdogan urged Putin in their phone call to restrain Assad's offensive and said the solution was to return to the 2018 Sochi agreement aimed at averting a government assault.

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