Erdogan and Putin clash over Idlib ceasefire

Source: Erdogan and Putin clash over Idlib ceasefire | The Times of Israel

Open disagreement highlights differences between leaders as they meet in Iran to discuss the fate of Syria’s last major rebel bastion

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Turkey’s counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Tehran on September 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)

TEHRAN — Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan Friday openly disagreed about a “ceasefire” in Syria’s Idlib province, highlighting their differences despite a close cooperation.

The rare scenes captured on camera came as Putin, Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Tehran for a three-way summit to discuss the fate of the country’s last major rebel bastion of Idlib.

Russia and Iran are key allies of President Bashar Assad’s regime. Turkey however backs opposition fighters seeking the ouster of the Syrian leader, and has argued against a large-scale offensive against the rebels fearing it could trigger a mass exodus towards its borders.

An unusual public exchange of words between Erdogan and Putin during the summit in the Iranian capital was carried live, as the Turkish leader pushed for a mention of a ceasefire in a joint statement.

“In the third point of the joint statement it’s clearly stated – we have considered the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone and have decided to seek a path to regulate the situation there,” Putin said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) attend a press conference after meeting in Tehran on September 7, 2018.(AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Mikhail KLIMENTYEV)

Idlib is one of the so-called “de-escalation” zones set up as a result of talks by Russia, Turkey and Iran last year as Damascus regained control of more of the country.

But Erdogan retorted: “Yes, the third point is wonderful, we take the diplomatic point. But there is no mention of ‘truce’. It would be good if we could have this phrase. It would strengthen the point… it would strengthen and calm this process.”

To which Putin replied: “The fact is there are no representatives of the armed opposition at our table,” citing the al-Nusra front and the so-called Islamic State extremist group. He also noted that the Syrian army was absent from the talks.

Idlib is dominated by jihadists of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, but in the past years has taken in tens of thousands of rebels and civilians evacuated from other areas recaptured by the regime.

Syrian rebel fighters from the Quneitra province walk with their rifles as they wait at the Morek crossing point to be transfered in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo on July 21, 2018. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)

“I believe the Turkish president is right overall. It would be good. But we cannot say for them — any more than we can say for the al-Nusra front or IS — that they will stop shooting or stop using armed drones,” Putin noted.

But as Russian airplanes pounded rebel positions in the Syrian province, Erdogan insisted: “If we can ensure a ceasefire here, this will be one of the most important steps of the summit, it will seriously put civilians at ease.”

“Any attack launched or to be launched on Idlib will result in a disaster, massacre and a very big humanitarian tragedy.”

He said it must be possible to find a reasonable way to ensure everyone’s concerns are dealt with.

“We can try to pull the elements which Russia finds disturbing to areas where they will be unable to attack the Aleppo and the Hmeimim regions,” he suggested.

Hmeimim is home to Russia’s main military base in northwestern province of Latakia.

On Friday morning, Russian air raids pounded rebel positions in the southwest of Idlib killing five people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Among them were positions of the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, as well as of the hardline Ahrar al-Sham group, the Britain-based monitor said.

Hundreds of civilians have already begun to flee Idlib ahead of what could be the last — and bloodiest — major battle of the devastating conflict.

 

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