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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Turkey and Russia exchange warnings over Syria's Idlib

Moscow wrote to the chiefs of the Turkish army and intelligence service to insist that Ankara fully implement the ceasefire in Idlib province

Syrian emergency personnel search for victims following an explosion in a rebel-held area of the northwestern city of Idlib on January 7. Zein Al Rifai / AFP
Syrian emergency personnel search for victims following an explosion in a rebel-held area of the northwestern city of Idlib on January 7. Zein Al Rifai / AFP

Turkey said on Wednesday that Iran and Russia must fulfil their responsibilities and stop strikes by forces of the Syrian regime in the Idlib province, from where Moscow claimed drones that struck its bases in Syria came.

Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad were targeting moderate opposition groups in Idlib “under the pretext of fighting the Al Nusra [Front] terrorist group”, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency, referring to the former Al Qaeda affiliate.

He said that the advances of the Syrian government — who has Russian air support — in northern Syria are in violation of a “de-escalation” agreement reached by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran.

“If you are the guarantors … you should stop the regime. It’s not just a simple air strike. The regime is moving in Idlib. The intent here is different,” he said, adding that such a move would undermine any peace process in Syria.

Mahmoud Al Mahmoud, spokesman of Jeish Al Izza — a Free Syrian Army group based in Latmaneh in northern Hama on the edge of Idlib's de-escalation zone — said that most of the air raids carried out by Russian and Syrian planes target factions that are not aligned with Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the umbrella group that includes Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, formerly known as Al Nusra Front.

"Inside the city of Latamneh there aren't any military positions," he said. "Around Latamneh there are bases for Jeish Al Izza. Every day, we have intense bombing of our bases," he told The National.

Mr Al Mahmoud accused the Syrian government of stepping up attacks prior to peace talks in the Russian city of Sochi later this month in hopes of extracting concessions from rebel groups and their backers.

"This escalation is to force FSA factions to accept the outcomes of Sochi and the items that will be discussed in the conference," he said.

The Turkish foreign minister said that Ankara would hold a meeting on Syria with like-minded countries in Turkey after talks in Sochi, where a Syrian congress of national dialogue is scheduled to be held end on January 29 and 30.

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On Tuesday, Turkey summoned the Iranian and Russian ambassadors, who were asked to relay to the Assad government that the violations must end.

Meanwhile, according to the Russian defence ministry’s official newspaper, drones that attacked Russian bases in Syria last week were sent from Idlib.

Idlib province has been a source of tension between Iran and Russia, which supports Mr Assad, and rebel-backer Turkey.

"The drones were launched from the area of Muazzara in the southwestern part of the Idlib de-escalation area controlled by so-called 'moderate opposition' units," Russian defence ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda reported.

It added that the ministry wrote to the chiefs of the Turkish army and intelligence service to insist that Ankara fully implement the ceasefire in Idlib province, which is almost entirely controlled by anti-regime forces.

Syria’s state news agency said on Wednesday that government troops are approaching a rebel-held airbase, Abu Duhour, in Idlib that was captured by the rebels in 2015. It has been the regime’s main target since their offensive into Idlib began in October.

After two years of Russian military support for the Assad regime, president Vladimir Putin said in mid-December that his troops will partially withdraw from the country as their task had been largely completed.

More than 330,000 have been killed and millions displaced since the Syrian war broke out in 2011.

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