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Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan agree on military push in Syria's Idlib

The Turkish president has called for a halt to a regime offensive to prevent refugees flooding the Turkish border

Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, August 27, 2019. AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, second right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, August 27, 2019. AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may not have got the reprieve he hoped for during talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who appears determined to rout remaining armed opposition groups from Syria.

During Mr Erdogan’s one-day visit to Russia, the Russian leader told reporters that Turkey and Russia had agreed on joint measures aimed at clearing "terrorists" in Syria's Idlib province.

"Together with Turkey's president we have outlined additional joint steps to neutralise the terrorists' nests in Idlib and normalisation of the situation there and in the whole of Syria as a result," Mr Putin told a joint briefing with the Turkish president in Zhukovsky, near Moscow, on the sidelines of an international aviation and space show.

The Russian president said that representatives from the two countries alongside Iranian officials would meet in Turkey in September to make progress on brokering a political solution to the conflict.

Mr Erdogan’s trip to Moscow was seen by observers as a plea for respite in the Syrian government’s offensive on the last bastion of opposition to President Bashar Al Assad.

After eight years of conflict, government forces backed by Russia are several months into an operation to quash armed opposition groups and extremists in the north-west province of Idlib.

Victory for Mr Assad would all but mark the end of the military phase of the war in Syria, which erupted after his forces brutally suppressed a series of peaceful, anti-government protests in 2011.

Mr Erdogan is concerned that an all-out assault will force a massive wave of refugees towards Turkey’s borders. Idlib is home to about three million Syrians, many of whom sought refuge there after fleeing regime offensives on their home cities.

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Pictures: Syrian regime forces massing to push further into Idlib

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Turkey already houses more displaced Syrians than any other country, but Mr Erdogan is facing a political crisis at home as the country buckles under the weight of hosting more than three million displaced Syrians.

In recent weeks, Ankara has come under fire for its crackdown, deporting vulnerable Syrians back to a conflict zone.

Mr Erdogan told the Russian president last week that attacks by the Syrian regime’s forces were causing a humanitarian crisis and threatened Turkey's national security.

However, Russia and Mr Assad are anxious to finally rout armed opposition from Idlib, bring about a final military resolution to the conflict and begin reconstruction efforts.

Russia and Turkey along with Iran agreed a ceasefire in Idlib last September and tasked Ankara with coordinating a drawdown of armed opposition there. The region is controlled mainly by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), an Al-Qaeda affiliate that has vowed to continue the fight against the Assad regime.

Ahead of Erdogan’s visit, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Russian-backed offensive in Idlib did not violate the terms of the ceasefire.

“Erdogan will try to renegotiate the Idlib agreement because Turkey isn’t able to implement it, which gives Russia a reason to support Syrian military operations in the province,” said Alexei Khlebkikov, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, a think tank which advises the Kremlin.

“It is unlikely that Erdogan is capable of stopping Russia-backed Syrian army offensive in Idlib, but he might be able to slow it down and decrease the level of violence,” Mr Khlebnikov told The National.

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After Khan Sheikhoun, world will wring hands as Syria's Idlib burns

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The UN says that 500,000 have already been displaced by the Russian-backed Syrian offensive in Idlib and Mr Khlebnikov added it was likely that, “Erdogan will raise the issue of the new refugees that are fleeting towards Turkey”.

Mr Erdogan’s trip coincided with a new round of deliveries of the Russian S-400 missile system to Turkey, an arms deal that has strained relations between Ankara and Washington.

US President Donald Trump threatened sanctions and repeatedly called on Turkey to call off the missile deal ahead of the first deliveries earlier this summer. United States officials say the Russian systems are incompatible with other allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a defense alliance whose members include the US and Turkey.

During his visit to Moscow, the Turkish president toured the MAKS air show, a biennial event that showcases Russia’s aerospace industry.

The Russian president was eager to put on display the latest Russian Sukhoi fighter jet as a replacement to the American F-35 jet, which the US made unavailable to Turkey after it purchased the Russian missile system.

Updated: August 27, 2019 10:28 PM

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