SOCHI/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin told Turkey and Iran on Thursday he wanted them to devise a joint plan to wipe out what he called “a hotbed of terrorists” in Syria’s Idlib region, an idea Moscow has so far tried and failed to sell to Ankara.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia February 14, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS
Putin, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest allies, was speaking at a summit he was hosting in southern Russia to weigh the future of Syria with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“…We should not put up with the presence of terrorist groups in Idlib,” Putin told Erdogan and Rouhani at the start of the summit. “That’s why I propose we consider practical concrete steps that Russia, Turkey and Iran can take to completely destroy this hotbed of terrorists.”
Rouhani appeared to back Putin, saying militants in Idlib should not be let off the hook, but Erdogan did not respond to Putin’s suggestion in his opening remarks.
All three countries have forces on the ground in Syria, where they have coordinated their efforts despite sometimes differing priorities and interests.
But tensions between Moscow and Ankara over Syria have risen in recent months, fuelled in part by a planned withdrawal of U.S. forces which promises to free up territory controlled by U.S. or U.S.-backed forces, spurring a race to fill the vacuum if and when it opens up.
Moscow is keen to help Assad retake territory from rebels and militants, including eventually the northwestern Idlib province, but Ankara, which has called for the Syrian leader to leave power, has so far pushed back.
It brokered a deal with Russia in September to enforce a demilitarised zone in Idlib. The agreement, which envisaged clearing the province of heavy weapons and jihadists, helped avert a Syrian government assault on the region, the last major bastion of Assad’s opponents after almost eight years of war.
But Moscow has since complained that Turkey has not done enough to keep its side of the bargain and that Islamist militants who used to belong to the Nusra Front group have seized control of much of Idlib.
Putin’s difficulty however has been persuading Erdogan to sign off on what would be a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in a region that borders Turkey.
Ankara is less keen as it is concerned about potential refugee flows from Idlib in the event of a military operation, and wants to retain its influence there.
It also does not want developments in Idlib to distract from its own plan to set up a safe zone in the northeast of Syria.
SAFE ZONE TENSIONS
Turkey’s plan to create that safe zone has also stirred tension with Moscow.
It wants the area near the Turkish border to be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia and to move into territory there, some of which is currently controlled by U.S. forces.
Earlier on Thursday, Russia told Turkey it had no right to create such a “safe zone” unless it sought and received the consent of Assad.
“The question of the presence of a military contingent acting on the authority of a third country on the territory of a sovereign country and especially Syria must be decided directly by Damascus,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in answer to a question about the Turkish safe zone plan. “That’s our base position.”
Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Dominic Evans in Turkey, Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich