Fate of Idlib hangs in balance as Turkey, Russia, Iran leaders meet

Turkey's president appealed to avert a massacre in the mainly rebel-held province of Idlib under attack by Syrian forces, but couldn't reach agreement with Russia and Iran on staving off a crisis that is creating a new wave of refugees.

Turkey‘s president appealed to avert a massacre in the mainly rebel-held province of Idlib under attack by Syrian forces, but couldn’t reach agreement with Russia and Iran on staving off a crisis that is creating a new wave of refugees.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rowhani in Ankara for their fifth summit.

Following bilateral meetings and three-way talks, all hailed their cooperation in finding a “political solution” to end the eight-year conflict. But on Idlib, Putin and Rowhani warned their goal was to root out “terrorists” from the region.

Tuesday marks one year since Turkey and Russia agreed to create a demilitarized zone around Idlib – also including the neighbouring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo – to keep a Syrian offensive at bay.

But on April 30, Syrian forces, bolstered by Russian air power, started pounding Idlib and rebel areas in Hama.

In the four months since, the United Nations says 1,089 civilians have been killed and more than 400,000 displaced in and around the Idlib demilitarized zone.

“We, as Turkey, cannot sit and watch a new tragedy that could affect 4 million people next to our borders,” Erdogan told a press conference. “Such a serious development would not only affect Turkey but also the whole of Europe.”

Turkey has been pushing a plan to settle displaced Syrians in border buffer zones in northern Syria.

Rowhani said the Idlib deal hadn’t been implemented, instead the territories controlled by “terrorists” had become larger.

The three regional powers are the guarantors of the Astana peace process launched in January 2017 to end Syria’s war, meant to complement UN-led conflict resolution efforts.

Erdogan said they agreed on preserving Syria’s territorial integrity. Putin called Astana an “effective instrument” to resolve the Syrian crisis. Rowhani described their talks as constructive.

Expectations were low for any lasting outcome from the summit, said analysts. Russia and Iran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ankara backs certain rebel groups, while also placating Moscow and cooperating with Washington, which supports Syrian Kurdish militias.

Erdogan’s main concern is that the Syrian onslaught in Idlib – home to 3 million people and close to Turkey‘s border – will trigger a new refugee crisis.

Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Erdogan recently threatened to “open the gates” to Europe if Turkey “did not receive the necessary support from the world, particularly Europe” to shoulder the Syrian refugee burden.

“We think at least 2 million Syrian brothers and sisters who took refuge in our country can be resettled to this region,” Erdogan said Monday of a “peace corridor east of the Euphrates” river.

He said he has spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron about this.

“Ankara is unlikely to persuade Moscow and Tehran to dissuade Damascus from taking over Idlib,” said Diyar Autal, an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

“Putin is the key power broker in these talks,” Autal told dpa. While seeking to keep al-Assad in power, Putin is also trying “to drive a wedge between Turkey and its key NATO ally, the US, and is thus prepared to heed Turkey‘s concerns to an extent,” he said.

A lot of what happens next in Idlib also depends on the dominant Islamist militant group in the region – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS),  an al-Qaeda affiliate.

HTS has, however, faced a loss of reputation among Idlib residents because it offered little significant resistance during the recent offensive.

Erdogan also raised Turkey‘s plans to set up a “safe zone” with the US in north-eastern Syria along the Turkish border. Ankara wants US-backed Syrian Kurdish militias pushed back and refugees to be settled here.

He warned that Turkey will go its own way unless the buffer zone is created by the end of this month.

The three leaders revisited the contentious issue of a committee to write a new Syrian constitution, which the UN sees as the next step to finding a political solution to end the war.

Putin said that the members of the constitutional committee have been determined, with Erdogan saying it wouldn’t be right to give an exact date for it. Rowhani hoped a discussion on the new constitution would start soon.

Their sixth summit will be held in Iran in the coming months, Erdogan said.

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