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US defence chief says discussed Syria with NATO head

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds a press conference as part of NATO Defense Ministers' Meeting in Brussels, Belgium on February 13, 2020 [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]
US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper holds a press conference as part of NATO Defense Ministers' Meeting in Brussels, Belgium on February 13, 2020 [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency]

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Monday he has discussed the situation in Syria with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg amid increased hostilities in the country's northwest, Anadolu Agency reports.

"Turkey obviously is engaged in combat operations over there and we will take it one step at a time," Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. "As an alliance we take this one step at a time so we are prepared for what may happen."

Idlib is currently home to four million civilians, including hundreds of thousands displaced in recent years by regime forces throughout the war-torn country.

In recent months, nearly 1.7 million Syrians have moved near the Turkish border due to intense attacks by Assad regime and its allies.

Esper further said what Turkey does on its borders regarding refugees and migrants is "its own decision to make."

READ: Turkey allowed more than 76,000 migrants to cross into Europe

"Turkey's got to make that decision," said Esper. "At the political level they need to decide what they're going to do with regard to their borders. That involves the EU and their neighboring countries, and they've got to work their way through that with them."

The Trump administration is considering additional humanitarian assistance for those within Syria, said Esper who denied the US is weighing air support.

In September 2018, Turkey and Russia had agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression were expressly prohibited.

But since then more than 1,800 civilians have been killed in airstrikes and shelling by the regime and its allies.

On Sunday, Turkey announced a new offensive, Operation Spring Shield, in northwestern Syria to protect civilians from the regime attacks.

It came after at least 34 Turkish soldiers were martyred and dozens injured in an Assad regime airstrike in the de-escalation zone on Feb. 27.

READ: Syria army retakes Saraqib city in Idlib from opposition

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