Turkey calls for ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib but Russia opposes
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Turkey called for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib Friday, warning a government assault on the rebel-held region could end in a “bloodbath”. But Russia opposed the plan, and Iran said the Syrian regime needs to regain control over all of its territory.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani - whose countries are key foreign players in Syria’s long civil war - spoke at a summit in Tehran aimed at charting a way to end the conflict. This was the third such meeting between them in the past year.
Reza Sayah, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Tehran, said that although the three countries agree to a certain extent on how to resolve the Syria conflict, “they also made it clear that they have conflicting interests”.
“Three million people are remaining in Idlib, some of them are armed opposition groups supported by Turkey. Some of them are hard-core opposition groups linked to al Qaeda, but you also have refugees – many women, children and civilians. So retaking Idlib is not going to be an easy task. It certainly has the potential of a bloodshed and that’s what Turkey wants to avoid, Sayah said, adding that “seemingly Iran and Russia want to support a Syrian military offensive to take back Idlib”.
The three-way summit ended with a joint statement from the leaders saying they would continue to look for ways to resolve the situation, noting that Syria’s bloody conflict can only be ended through a “negotiated political process”, and not through military means. The leaders also agreed that the Islamic State (IS) group and the al Nusra Front must be eliminated and that safe conditions must be created in Syria to make it possible for displaced civilians to return-- a major concern for Turkey which has accepted millions of Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict.
The three leaders will hold their next round of Syria talks in Russia.
Later Friday, Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, proposed that a deadline be set for all rebel fighters - in particular the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front - to move away from populated areas in the region and that no military attacks would be launched during the pullback.
"This would apply in particular for al Nusra, who should be notified by the guarantors, in particular Turkey, which still has the capacity to send messages," he told a Security Council meeting.
He also called for evacuation corridors to be opened for civilians to voluntarily leave the war zone.
“People should be granted safe passage to places of their own choosing if they want to leave," de Mistura said. "We must allow the opening of sufficient number of protected voluntary evacuation routes for civilians in any direction: east, north and south."
Final major battle?
The situation in Idlib, situatedin Syria’s northwest and the insurgents' only remaining major stronghold, is an immediate issue as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, prepare for what could be the conflict’s last decisive battle.
The United Nations has also warned that a full-scale assault on the region could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.
While the leaders gathered in Tehran, however, Russian and Syrian government warplanes pounded rebel-held parts of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported.
Tehran and Moscow have helped Assad turn the course of the war against an array of opponents ranging from Western-backed rebels to Islamist militants, while Turkey is a leading opposition supporter and has troops in the country.
Their discussions in Tehran marked a crucial point in a seven-year-old war which has killed more than half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.
Erdogan called on Putin and Rouhani to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib, saying such an accord would be a “victory” of their summit. Turkey could no longer take in any more refugees from any new assault in Idlib, he said.
However, Putin responded that he opposed a ceasefire because the Nusra Front and IS group militants located there were not part of the peace talks. Syria should regain control of all its territory, he said.
“The fact is that there are no representatives of the armed opposition here around this table. And more still, there are no representatives of Jabhat al-Nusra or the IS group or the Syrian army,” Putin said.
“I think in general the Turkish president is right. It would be good. But I can’t speak for them, and even more so can’t talk for terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra or the IS group that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs.”
‘Idlib indispensable for peace’
Rouhani also said the battle in Syria would continue until militants were pushed out of the whole country, especially in Idlib, but he added that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.
He called on all militants in Syria to disarm and seek a peaceful end to the conflict.
“The fight against terrorism in Idlib is an indispensable part of the mission to return peace and stability to Syria, but this fight should not harm civilians and lead to a ‘scorched-earth’ policy,” Rouhani said.
Erdogan also said Turkey no longer had the capacity to take in any more refugees from Syria should the government offensive in Idlib go ahead. Turkey has accepted 3.5 million refugees from Syria since the start of the war in 2011.
“Whatever reason there is an attack that has been made or will be made will result in disaster, massacre and humanitarian drama,” he said.
The Assad government was not directly represented at the summit, nor was the United States or other Western powers.
Widely abhorred internationally for the brutal conduct of the war, Assad has largely reclaimed most of Syrian territory though much of it is ravaged.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)