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Putin, Erdogan look to defuse Syria crisis at Moscow talks

The Syrian government’s attempt to take Idlib has forced close to a million civilians to flee their homes-AFP

The leaders of Russia and Turkey met in Moscow on Thursday after a surge in fighting in Syria raised fears of their armies clashing and launched a new migrant crisis.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hoping Russia’s Vladimir Putin will agree to a rapid ceasefire in Idlib, the northwestern province of Syria where Ankara is battling Moscow-backed government forces.

“The entire world has its eyes fixed on us,” Erdogan said at the start of the talks, stressing that decisions were needed to “calm the region and our two countries”.

Putin said the situation in Idlib had become so tense that it was time for “a direct personal conversation” between them.

Pointing to the losses suffered by both Turkish and Syrian forces, Putin said: “We need to talk about everything, so that nothing like this happens again and it does not destroy Russian-Turkish relations.”

POOL/AFP / Pavel GolovkinRussian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) will try to ease tensions that have threatened to bring their two countries into direct contact

Intense fighting has killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in Idlib in recent weeks, as Ankara for the first time launched a direct offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The Syrian government’s attempt to take Idlib has forced close to a million civilians to flee their homes and prompted Erdogan to open Turkey’s border with Greece to refugees and migrants.

Turkey has demanded European Union support for its actions in Syria and some in the bloc have accused Erdogan of using migrants as “blackmail”.

– Trading accusations –

Ankara wants Assad’s forces to cease their assault on the province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, and pull back behind lines agreed under a 2018 deal with Russia brokered in Sochi.

Turkey has long backed some rebel groups fighting against Assad but its priority now is to stop another influx of refugees.

The Kremlin, which launched an air war in support of Assad in 2015, sees it as a key success of Putin’s foreign policy — with newfound clout and military bases in Syria that establish Moscow as a major player in the Middle East.

AFP / Ozan KOSETurkey warned Europe it must support Ankara in Syria to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis

Experts say Putin is not looking for a full confrontation with NATO member Turkey but will make it clear that Ankara cannot stand in the way of Syria retaking full control of its territory.

“Victory in Syria has become a matter of prestige for Russia — and for Putin personally,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council.

Despite supporting opposing sides in the war, Russia and Turkey have worked to try to resolve the nine-year conflict and avoid direct confrontation.

But that relationship has been strained in recent days, with the two sides trading accusations of violating the Sochi deal, which created a buffer zone and allowed for the deployment of 12 Turkish observation posts.

Ankara says Russia is not fulfilling part of the deal that guaranteed no attacks on Idlib and the status quo on the ground.

Moscow says Turkey is violating the deal by supporting “illegal armed groups” and has accused Turkish forces of mingling with “terrorists” who are legitimate targets.

– Migrants mass on border –

Turkey said on Wednesday that at least two more Turkish soldiers had been killed in Idlib, after 34 died in an air strike last week blamed on Damascus.

AFP /Syria

Turkey officially declared an operation against the Assad government over the weekend. It has since downed three Syrian warplanes and killed dozens of soldiers and allied fighters, according to monitors.

Fighting continued in the province on Thursday, with Russian air strikes killing at least 15 civilians gathered outside the town of Maaret Misrin, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen urged Putin and Erdogan to find an “immediate diplomatic solution” to the crisis “that could spare civilians further suffering”.

Erdogan warned Europe on Wednesday that it must support Turkey’s “political and humanitarian solutions in Syria” if it wants to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis.

Thousands of migrants have massed at the Turkish-Greek border since Erdogan gave them the green light to try to enter Europe, leading to clashes with Greek police.

Turkey hosts roughly 3.6 million refugees from Syria — and hundreds of thousands from elsewhere — and Erdogan’s move has sparked concern in Europe of a renewed influx of migrants.

Washington urged Europe to get behind Ankara’s military operation on Thursday, with the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, saying in Istanbul: “We are pressing the Europeans to contribute a great deal.”


March 5, 2020


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