Erdogan calls for cease-fire but Putin says truce won’t hold
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday called for the eradication of terrorist groups in Syria, as he hosted three-way talks with Russia and Turkey to shape the future of Syria's last major terrorist bastion.
Rouhani was speaking as he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for highly-anticipated talks in Tehran.
Rouhani said the battle in Syria would continue until terrorists are “uprooted, particularly in Idlib”, but added that any military operations should avoid hurting civilians.
“The fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end,” Rouhani told the summit in Tehran, as he warned against a "scorched earth" policy in Idlib Province,
"Fighting terrorism in Idlib is an unavoidable part of the mission of restoring peace and stability to Syria," Rouhani said.
"But this battle must not cause civilians to suffer or lead to a scorched earth policy," he added, amid UN warnings of a humanitarian disaster if an offensive goes ahead.
He called on all terrorists in Syria to disarm and seek a peaceful end to the conflict.
Rouhani also demanded an immediate withdrawal by American forces in the country. The US has some 2,000 troops in Syria. He added that “we have to force the United States to leave,” without elaborating.
The three countries are guarantors of the Astana process, a track of talks on Syria's war launched after Russia's game-changing 2015 military support that has eclipsed Western-backed Geneva negotiations.
Iranian and Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has shored up the Damascus government, allowing it to regain the upper hand in the seven-year war which has claimed some 350,000 lives since 2011.
Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under terrorist control.
On Friday morning, Russian air raids pounded terrorist positions in the southwest of Idlib, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Among them were positions of the terrorist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, as well as of the terrorist Ahrar al-Sham group, the Britain-based monitor said.
The Turkish president also urged the Syrian government to avoid a “bloodbath”, but Putin insisted the Syrian government “has the right” to regain control over all Syrian territory, including Idlib.
Turkey, which has long backed Syrian terrorists, fears the assault could prompt a flood of desperate Syrians towards its territory.
“Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience,” Erdogan told his Iranian and Russian counterparts on Friday, adding “we don’t want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath.”
Erdogan 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.
"Any attack launched or to be launched on Idlib will result in a disaster, massacre and a very big humanitarian tragedy," he said, calling for a cease-fire in the province. “Millions will be coming to Turkey’s borders because they have nowhere to go. Turkey has filled its capacity to host refugees.”
"If we can ensure a cease-fire here, this will be one of the most important steps of the summit," Erdogan said.
“We must find a reasonable way out for Idlib,” he said.
"Idlib is of vital importance not only for Syria's future but also for our national security, as well as peace and stability in the region."
But Russia and Iran believe that the terrorists must be wiped out and Assad has declared his determination to retake control of the entire country.
Joint cooperation needed
“We should think together over all aspects of this complicated issue,” Putin said, speaking of Idlib. “We should solve this issue together and (we should) all realize that the legitimate Syrian government has the right and eventually should be able to regain control of all of its territory.”
Reacting to Erdogan’s proposal for the joint communique to call for a cease-fire in Idlib, Putin said “a cease-fire would be good” but indicated that Moscow does not think it will hold.
“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 Daesh that they will stop shooting or stop using drones with bombs.”
He warned terrorists in Idlib planned “provocations,” possibly including chemical weapons.
The Tehran talks could determine the scale and the timeline of the Idlib offensive.
Russia wants Turkey, which borders the province, to use its influence to rein in the dominant group HTS, led by the former Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, as well as rival terrorists.
Turkey has limited sway over the terrorists who control an estimated 60 percent of the province, but it backs other militant groups and has 12 military "observation points" across the area.
Idlib's population has swelled as the Syrian government chalked up a series of victories across the country, reaching evacuation deals that saw tens of thousands of people bussed there.
Russia has said the Syrian Army is preparing to solve the problem of "terrorism" in the terrorist stronghold.
"A total and definitive liquidation of the terrorists across all of Syria's territory is necessary," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.
She stressed however that Moscow "is doing everything in its power to ensure that human losses and harm to Idlib's civilian population is limited as much as possible".
Al-Watan, a Syrian newspaper close to the government, reported Monday the military operation could "immediately follow the summit".
AFP, AP and Reuters contributed to this story.