Turkey sparing no effort to secure cease-fire in Idlib against growing risk of catastrophe

Syrian refugee children push a disabled boy in a makeshift wheelchair at a camp for displaced people in northern Idlib province, Aug. 29.

The Turkish government is looking to maintain the cease-fire in Syria's Idlib to prevent any kind of humanitarian catastrophe by pursuing various diplomatic channels with regional and international actors. Exerting efforts with Russia and Iran in a trilateral mechanism as well as an upcoming four-sided summit including France, Germany and Russia, Turkey is adamant on keeping peace in Idlib. Regarding the situation in Syria's Idlib, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Thursday, "Turkey strives for ensuring security, preventing attacks, giving aid to nearly 3.5 million to 4 million people in Syria's Idlib without violating the cease-fire."

The defense minister asserted that Ankara's aim is to help displaced Syrians return home safe and sound by taking these concrete steps. On the Turkish military's success against both internal and external terror threats, Akar said that Turkish troops have neutralized some 3,000 Daesh terrorists in Operation Euphrates Shield along with 5,000 militants during Operation Olive Branch. "We are the only country to fight against Daesh on land," he said. "Turkey will always respect both Syria and Iraq's integrity and sovereignty," Akar added but warned that any terrorists hiding in those countries would be pursued with any force necessary. Located near the Turkish border, Idlib was designated as a de-escalation zone in May where acts of aggression are expressly forbidden as part of the ongoing Astana process.

Nevertheless, for the past two months, the Idlib de-escalation zone has been the target of fierce airstrikes by Russian and Assad regime forces.

Akar also commented on the telephone conversation with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, saying, "We have exchanged very constructive, positive opinions, we have shared our views on various issues including İdlib," he said.

The danger of a catastrophe in Idlib concerns Europe greatly as well. Local and international officials have issued warnings over a potential humanitarian nightmare and a new refugee flood toward Europe if the regime and Russian military buildup around Idlib translates into a new offensive to conquer the last tangible opposition concentration in the country.

Yesterday, the UN's Syria peace envoy offered to travel to Idlib to help ensure civilians can leave through a humanitarian corridor.

"I am once again prepared ... personally and physically to get involved myself ... to ensure that such a temporary corridor would be feasible and guaranteed for the people so that they can then return to their own places once this is over," Staffan de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned late Tuesday that a possible offensive would have catastrophic consequences for civilians already suffering due to the seven-year civil war. The U.N. Humanitarian Coordination Office in Damascus also said yesterday that as many as 800,000 people already in a dire humanitarian situation would be displaced in case of the offensive.

Guterres also urged the guarantors of the Astana peace initiative led by Turkey, Iran and Russia to step up their efforts "to find a peaceful solution to the situation in Idlib, the last remaining de-escalation zone."

Idlib and the surrounding region have a population of approximately 3.5 million, and a substantial part of it consists of refugees who fled different parts of the country.

UNICEF said food, water, and medicine are already in short supply in the largely rural northwestern province, now home to millions of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by regime offensives across the country.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow after meeting with Lavrov last week, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned that a possible military operation in Idlib would be a "disaster." According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, military officials of the two countries, who know the situation on the ground, are discussing how to "turn political consensus into practical steps."

"A few days ago in Moscow, as you know, there were talks between the foreign and defense ministers [of Turkey and Russia] with the participation of the representatives of secret services, during which Idlib was given primary attention for understandable reasons," Lavrov said.

Idlib is one of the de-escalation areas designated in the Astana talks between Turkey and the regime's allies Russia and Iran and has been turned into a shelter for opposition fighters and their families who were evacuated from different parts of the war-torn country.

In an effort to restore calm in the region and improve the humanitarian situation, the three guarantor states Turkey, Iran and Russia launched the Astana process on Jan. 23, 2017, to complement the U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva.

Also, Turkey initiated another effort to find a solution in the area. Within this framework, the most senior representatives of Russia, France and Germany and Turkey will gather in Istanbul in September. This summit will start a parallel process that will contribute to the Astana process that was launched last year by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said previously that the Astana process, named after the Kazakhstan capital where it started, would also bring together the presidents of the three countries in Tehran soon.

Erdoğan will meet with his Russian and Iranian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani on Sept. 7 in Iran for their third tripartite summit on seeking to end the conflict in Syria. The three leaders have previously held summits in the Russian resort city of Sochi and the Turkish capital Ankara.

'MANBIJ PLAN SLOWLY PROGRESSING'

Speaking at a military promotion ceremony at the Turkish General Staff headquarters in Ankara on Thursday, Akar said, "The Manbij road map is moving forward, even if slowly. We constantly remind our counterparts about the necessity of the withdrawal of the [People's Protection Units] YPG/PKK from the region."

Manbij houses the PKK's Syrian affiliate, the YPG, and is a key transit point for Daesh terrorists attempting to enter Syria and Iraq. The Syrian city has been controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is predominantly led by YPG terrorists, under the pretext of fighting against Daesh since 2016.

However, in June a road map for Manbij was announced after a meeting in Washington between Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, focusing on the PKK-affiliated terror group's withdrawal from the northern Syrian city and on stability in the region.

In line with the road map, the YPG started to leave Manbij on July 4. In the second part of the plan, Turkey and the U.S. were expected to start jointly monitoring the city after 45 days. In the third part of the plan, the local government would be established in 60 days.

Turkey supports a plan to establish an administration in Manbij consisting of local elements just like it did before in the areas cleared from Daesh and YPG terrorists with Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch.

According to the third part of the Manbij road map, the military council will establish security for the city and the city council, which will provide services, will be established according to the population's ethnicity, which is 90 percent Arab.

FRENCH FM URGES DIALOGUE WITH TURKEY, RUSSIA IN SYRIA

France has aligned itself with the United States in the bid to find a political solution in Syria, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday, urging dialogue with Turkey and Russia.

"We have a common stance with the United States that there must be some reassuring measures to restore peace in Syria and to withdraw foreign forces, in order to introduce constitutional reforms allowing all Syrians, including asylum-seekers, to participate," Le Drian said in a speech as part of the 26th Ambassadors Conference, which opened in Paris on Monday.

"I hope that this dialogue remains the basis for a broader platform, including with Russia and Turkey," he added. "As for our relations with Russia, some of our partners view that country as an enemy, and they have reasons for this, but France is not seeking to isolate or weaken Russia. In return, we expect respect and cooperation."

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