Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

Turkish officials headed for Russia to resolve Idlib crisis

But Russia says Syrian government victory over 'terrorists' in the rebel-held region is inevitable

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2020. Turkish Foreign Ministry via Reuters
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the Munich Security Conference on February 15, 2020. Turkish Foreign Ministry via Reuters

Turkey will send a delegation to Russia on Monday to discuss the military escalation in Syria’s Idlib region, where government forces killed more than a dozen Turkish soldiers in two attacks this month.

Announcing the talks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara would prefer to resolve matters with Moscow through diplomacy.

“If it won’t work through diplomatic channels, we will take the necessary steps,” he said on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference.

Mr Cavusoglu later held talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the German gathering and said in tweet that their meeting was positive.

Tension between Moscow and Ankara escalated this week as Russia-backed government forces pressed on with their campaign – despite Turkey’s warnings – and killed five soldiers in their second attack on a Turkish military position in the province.

A Russian delegation held two rounds of talks in Ankara without any resolution being announced.

Russia and Turkey, which back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, reached a ceasefire agreement for Idlib in late 2018 under which Turkey set up a dozen military observation posts in the province, the last bastion of opposition to Mr Al Assad’s rule.

The pact called for the establishment of a demilitarised zone between the warring sides and for extremist groups in the area to be disarmed.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels including the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham group led by members of the former Al Qaeda offshoot in Syria.

Mr Lavrov said on Saturday that victory over terrorist groups in Idlib was inevitable.

HTS “controls a major part of the Idlib security zone and that’s a problem”, Mr Lavrov said after his meeting with Mr Cavusoglu.

He called the area “one of the last hotbeds of terrorism” in Syria.

The Russian foreign minister said it was difficult to distinguish “normal opposition from terrorists” because the extremists were trying to use civilians as shields.

The Russian defence ministry said last week that Turkey did not separate “fighters from the moderate opposition from terrorists” as agreed to in 2018, prompting Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar to say that force would be used against anyone who did not adhere to the ceasefire, including radicals.

Turkey has sent military reinforcements into Idlib to push back government forces, which have surrounded at least four of its outposts.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has week called for pro-Assad forces to pull back and warned Damascus they would pay a “heavy price” should Turkish troops come under fire again.

Turkey says it wants to stop the Damascus regime’s aggression in an attempt to stop the deaths of civilians and to prevent a wave of refugees trying to reach Turkey. The conflict in the assault in the province has forced 800,000 people to flee since December, the United Nations said.

Mr Erdogan’s office said he had discussed ways to end the bloodshed in Idlib in a phone call to US President Donald Trump on Saturday. “Stressing that the regime’s most recent attacks are unacceptable, Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump exchanged views on ways to end the crisis in Idlib without further delay,” the presidency announced.

Mr Erdogan, who was returning from a visit to Pakistan, said he had also spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The attacks on Turkish troops and Ankara’s retaliation, which its military claimed had killed scores of government fighters, have raised fears of prolonged fighting.

This is despite government forces having apparently achieved their main objective of retaking control of a motorway connecting the capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, the country’s main economic hub.

On Friday, a second Syrian government helicopter was shot down over Idlib in the space of a week.

Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency said the helicopter was shot down by Ankara-backed rebels,

The state-owned Russia Today channel said it was hit by a shoulder-fired missile launched from a Turkish military observation post near the town of Dara Azza.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, blamed the attack on Turkey. It said both pilots were killed.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

A rebel military source and witnesses told Reuters that Russian jets had been bombarding areas in the countryside west of Aleppo earlier on Friday but returned to the city after the helicopter was struck.

A government helicopter was shot down earlier in the week after the attack by Syrian forces on Turkish soldiers.

Also on Friday, Israeli air strikes on the airport area of Damsacus killed at least three Syrian soldiers and four members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Observatory said.

A report by Syrian state news agency Sana said missiles were intercepted over Damascus but made no mention of casualties or the source of the attack.

Israel does not usually comment on strikes in Syria.

Updated: February 15, 2020 11:28 PM

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