Mon, 24 Jun 2019

The presidents of Russia and Turkey, which are backing different sides in the Syrian conflict, are set to meet on September 17 for what the Kremlin described as "very serious" talks on the situation surrounding the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria.

The meeting in the Russian Black sea resort city of Sochi comes 10 days after a summit between Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and their Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rohani, failed to produce a compromise in a bid to avert an expected Syrian government offensive in Idlib Province, which the Turkish president has warned would ignite a 'bloodbath.'

SEE ALSO: Erdogan Warns Russia, Iran Against Offensive In Syria's Idlib Province

'Today, the conversation will be continued because the situation is complicated,' Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said ahead of the Sochi meeting. 'There is a certain difference in approaches, and that is why this demands a very serious conversation at the highest level.'

Meanwhile, Turkey's Hurriyet daily quoted Erdogan as saying Ankara's calls for a cease-fire in Idlib were bearing fruit after days of relative calm.

'It looks like we obtained a result with the efforts which were made,' the Turkish president told reporters on a flight back from Azerbaijan at the weekend. 'But we are still not satisfied.'

Moscow and Tehran have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crucial support throughout the war, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

Speaking in Berlin on September 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow will keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee.

SEE ALSO: Lavrov Says Russia To Keep Bombing Militant Targets In Syria's Idlib

Turkey is backing rebel groups and established military observation posts around Idlib, which Ankara has reportedly reinforced with troops and equipment in recent weeks.

Erdogan said these posts are aimed at protecting the "innocent people" there, according to Hurriyet.

'But currently everybody can see the regime's mercilessness and the terror which they are spreading there. There is a terror state,' he added.

Turkey fears that a large-scale assault on Idlib, which lies on its southern border, could trigger a massive flow of refugees onto its soil.

The country is already home to more than 3 million Syrians who have fled the war.

While backing separate sides, Turkey, Russia, and Iran launched a negotiations process last year in the Kazakh capital, Astana, mainly dealing with battlefield issues, such as cease-fires and deescalation zones. A separate UN-led round of talks addressing political issues has taken place in Geneva.

A possible compromise from the ongoing negotiations could take the form of a 'limited military operation or surgical strikes' targeting the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, which is believed to be the dominant force among rebels in Idlib Province, Abdul Wahab Assi, an analyst at the Syria-based Jusoor Studies Center, told the AFP news agency.

Assi said the sides could also agree to modify the borders of the deescalation zones to keep armed rebels from certain sectors.

Moscow may be open to such a plan as long as it would secure the Aleppo-Damascus highway and put an end to drone attacks launched from Idlib against Russia's Hmeimim air base in the neighboring province of Latakia, the analyst said.

Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan said the lack of an agreement with Ankara could push Moscow and the Syrian regime to stage an operation that will last "months' rather than a full-fledged attack.

The United Nations expects up to 900,000 people to flee if Syrian government forces launch a large-scale offensive on Idlib, home to some 3 million people.

The 7 1/2-year war has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.

With reporting by AFP, TASS, and Reuters

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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