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Russia, Turkey share ‘concerns’ over Idlib as Kurds pull back

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan eat ice cream during the MAKS 2019 International Aviation and Space Salon’s opening ceremony in Zhukovsky yesterday. – AFP

MOSCOW: The leaders of Russia and Turkey said yesterday they shared deep concerns over fighting in northwestern Syria, with Ankara warning it would take the steps necessary to protect its troops there. After meeting for talks near Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they hoped to work together to ease tensions in Idlib province.

Russian-backed government forces launched a ground offensive this month against Idlib, one of the last major areas of Syria outside government hands. The fighting is threatening to increase tensions between Russia and Iran, who back President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, and Turkey which supports some rebel groups. “The situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone is of serious concern to us and our Turkish partners,” Putin said at a press conference with Erdogan carried on Russian state television.

He said Turkey had “legitimate interests” to protect on its southern borders and supported the creation of a security zone in the area. Putin said he and Erdogan had agreed “additional joint steps” to “normalize” the situation in Idlib, but did not provide details. Moscow and Ankara last year struck a deal to create a “de-escalation” buffer zone around Idlib to avert a full-scale regime assault.

But Assad’s forces have been bombarding the province for months and on August 8 launched a ground offensive. Turkey established 12 military observation posts in Idlib under the buffer zone deal and one of them has been encircled by Syrian government forces. “The situation (in Idlib) has become so complicated that at this moment our troops are in danger,” Erdogan said. “We do not want this to continue. All necessary steps will be taken here as needed.”

Yesterday’s talks between Putin and Erdogan came ahead of a summit on Syria that will see the two leaders joined by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in Ankara on Sept 16. Erdogan said the September meeting “should contribute to peace in the region”. Both leaders said they supported Syria’s territorial integrity, but Putin emphasized the need to keep fighting militant forces in Idlib. “Terrorists continue shelling the positions of Syrian government forces, trying to attack Russian military installations,” Putin said.  “The de-escalation zone must not serve as a refuge for militants, let alone a bridgehead for new attacks.”

Idlib is dominated by jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Recent fighting has been fierce in the province, the last major front in a war that has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since 2011. Yesterday, clashes between anti-government fighters and regime forces in northwestern Syria killed 51 combatants on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

Putin and Erdogan met on the sidelines of the MAKS international air show on the outskirts of Moscow – a showcase for Russia’s military and civil aerospace industry. The two leaders highlighted their increased cooperation, which saw Turkey begin taking delivery in July of Russian S-400 missile systems it ordered in defiance of warnings from Washington.

Turkey’s defense ministry said the second stage of deliveries had begun yesterday and would last for a month. Putin said he and Erdogan had discussed further military cooperation, including on Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet. A move by NATO member Turkey to purchase Russian fighters would be sure to further anger Washington. “We have many opportunities, we demonstrated new weapons systems and new electronic warfare systems,” Putin said. “In my opinion there was a lot of interest from our Turkish partners.”

Meanwhile, Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria said yesterday their forces had started to withdraw from outposts along the Turkish border after a US-Turkish deal for a buffer zone there. They said work had begun Saturday on “the first practical steps – in the Ras al-Ain area – in removing some earth mounds and withdrawing a group of (Kurdish) People’s Protection Units and heavy weapons”.

On Monday, they repeated the same steps in Tal Abyad, “showing the seriousness of our commitment to current understandings” on the buffer zone, the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration said in a statement. The so-called “safe zone” agreed by Washington and Ankara earlier this month aims to create a buffer between the Turkish border and Syrian areas controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group Ankara sees as “terrorists”.

Details of the safe zone are currently hazy, and no final date has been set for when it would be established. But on Monday, Erdogan said Turkish troops would soon enter northeast Syria. “Our armed drones, drones and helicopters are in the region,” he said. “We expect our ground troops to enter the region very soon,” he told supporters in eastern Turkey.

On Saturday, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said a US-Turkey operations center aimed at creating the buffer area was at “full capacity”. He said the first joint helicopter flight took place on Saturday afternoon. Mazlum Abdi, the chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, on Saturday said his forces would support the implementation of the US-Turkey deal.

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to attack Kurdish-held areas in northeast Syria. Ankara considers the YPG, which forms the backbone of the SDF, to be an extension the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a group that has fought a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for 35 years. The “safe zone” was initially suggested by Washington to dissuade Ankara from carrying out another cross-border attack, after previous offensives in 2016 and 2018.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali told Reuters the strip along the border would vary between 5 and 14 km and will include rural areas or military positions, not cities or towns. The YPG and SDF will dismantle barricades there and hand over control to military councils of local fighters, he said. Bali said Turkish and US-led coalition forces would patrol the border strip but be based inside Turkey. The deal creates “a security mechanism, not safe zone, that assuages Turkey’s claims of fearing over its national security,” he added.

A source familiar with the talks told Reuters that although Washington and Ankara were still discussing how deep the zone would go, they had agreed to start work on one stretch of the border. “The safety mechanism arrangement is being implemented in phases,” the source said, adding that arrangements would vary at different parts of the border.

The source said US-Turkish joint patrols will monitor the removal of heavy weapons, fortifications and tunnels, along with YPG presence between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain, two Syrian border towns about 100 km apart. That stretch is around a quarter of the whole border that could be covered by the zone, which Turkey says should extend 20 miles (32 km) inside Syria.

A senior Turkish official said Ankara and Washington had bridged some, but not all, of their differences. “There was a rapprochement, but our insistence on the 20 miles persists. The United States has taken steps to improve this, but they are still not enough,” the official said. “It is not possible for us to accept the SDF’s presence there.” – Agencies

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