Erdoğan-Putin meeting last opportunity to prevent humanitarian tragedy in Idlib

SERDAR KARAGÖZ @serdarkaragoz
PRESIDENTIAL PLANE
Published 17.09.2018 04:01
Updated 17.09.2018 04:03
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey will continue to strengthen its military presence in Idlib’s de-escalation zones to ensure the safety of civilians.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey will continue to strengthen its military presence in Idlib’s de-escalation zones to ensure the safety of civilians.

The meeting between Erdoğan and Putin may be the last chance to avoid a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, as the Assad regime continues to target civilians in the province

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said yesterday that he expects his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to be held today in Sochi, to have important positive outcomes regarding the prevention of a humanitarian tragedy in Idlib, northern Syria. "The outcome of our meeting with Mr. Putin will be important. I also have visits to the United Nations General Assembly and Germany toward the end of the month. It is my wish that, with positive decisions made at these meetings, we will carry out the situation [in Idlib] to a new level," Erdoğan told members of the Turkish press accompanying him during his visit to Azerbaijan for ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the liberation of Baku by the Caucasian Islamic Army, comprised of Azerbaijani and Turkish soldiers on Sept. 15, 1918.

Turkish officials have been conducting intense diplomatic efforts to avoid a possible full-scale military operation by Bashar Assad's forces on the opposition-held Idlib province, in northwestern Syria. The meeting expected to be held today with Putin, one of Assad's main backers, will add to the diplomatic efforts by Ankara.

"If the situation in Idlib continues as is, the results will be heavy. We have to find a solution with Russia and coalition forces without letting this happen. As you know, the U.S. has a different position, however, we have previously held meetings with Germany and France. We are already in it together with Russia," Erdoğan said. On Friday, representatives of Turkey, France, Germany and Russia held a preparatory meeting in Istanbul for an upcoming quartet summit on Syria. Erdoğan said a meeting at a leaders level may also take place to discuss the future of Syria and regional matters.

The president is expected to attend the 73rd session of the U.N. General Assembly, which will begin on Sept. 18. Erdoğan is also scheduled to pay an official visit to Germany on Sept. 28-29, where he is expected to meet his German counterpart Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss bilateral and regional issues.

Erdoğan said that the situation in Idlib has been relatively calm in recent days as a result of diplomatic efforts; however, the situation is not satisfactory yet.

TURKEY CARRIES THE BURDEN OF IDLIB

"Turkey bears the political and humanitarian burden of the situation. There are already 3.5 million refugees in our country. If a new refugee influx takes places, Turkey will be the place people will come to and seek refuge," Erdoğan said.

He added that Turkey has already taken measures to face the refugee wave, including steps taken in Syria as well.

U.N. officials have said that nearly 40,000 people have already fled Idlib amid recent bombings by Assad forces and Russian airstrikes on the region, and added the number could reach to nearly a million if a full-scale military offensive targets the province.

"We cannot act like the West. We will have a much more protective attitude [toward refugees]. However, this burden is not light, it is heavy, and it is not easy to overcome this burden," the president said.

Idlib, a province now hosting nearly 3.5 million people, was originally home to about 750,000 people. Over the past three years, thousands have been evacuated from different parts of Syria to Idlib, under agreements with the regime, as it was deemed a safe zone.

TURKEY FIGHTS FOR CIVILIANS, AGAINST TERRORISTS

Erdoğan said Turkey fights against all terrorist groups in Syria and that Ankara has underlined its position against terrorism during the recent Tehran summit.

"We fulfill our responsibility in Syria. What we did in Afrin and Jarablus is clear. We fight against all terror groups. Similarly we fight against terrorism in Idlib," Erdoğan said. He added that Turkey's stance on terrorism was made clear during the Tehran summit with Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sept. 14.

"We have 12 observation point in Idlib, Russia has 10 and Iran has a few. Our efforts with these observation points is to protect the innocent civilians there," the president said.

Turkey, Russia and Iran in January 2017 launched what has come to be known as the Astana process, with the aim of bringing all warring parties in the Syrian conflict to the table, a move seen complimentary to the U.N. brokered peace talks in Geneva. The Astana process has been significant because unlike its predecessor meetings, armed opposition groups were invited to the meetings in addition to the political opposition, excluding groups deemed as terrorists.

The Astana process resulted in an agreement of the three guarantor countries signing a memorandum on May 2017 to implement four "de-escalation" zones in Idlib, north of the central city of Homs, the Eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus and in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra. It also envisaged creating corridors for humanitarian access and established no-fly zones for military aircraft in those areas. Accordingly, Turkey established 12 checkpoints to monitor the cease-fire agreement in the de-escalation areas and to deliver humanitarian aid. The cease-fire, however, has recently come to an end as the regime forces backed by Russia and Iran have carried out heavy bombardment since Sept. 8. Idlib remains as the last stronghold of the opposition until recently.

TERRORISTS NOT AN EXCUSE TO KILL CIVILIANS

Erdoğan commented on Putin's approach to the Tehran summit, saying the Russian president's stance for a solution was positive.

"I hope he will continue the positive stance also going forward," the president said. He added that Ankara seeks to eliminate terror groups which have infiltrated into the moderate opposition in Idlib. Erdoğan added, however, that the elimination of terrorists cannot be achieved by bombardment of civilians.

Turkey acknowledges the presence of some terrorist groups, such as the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), however has said that there are nearly 3.5 million civilians in the area, as well as moderate forces in the province, and that an indiscriminate attack would lead to a humanitarian disaster. Ankara has asked for the halting of attacks on Idlib to push HTS to leave the region or force them to lay down their arms with the help of the moderate opposition.

"The protection of civilians in the region, separating terrorist elements and protecting the current status of Idlib are crucial matters," Erdoğan had said in Tehran at the end of the summit.

"Regardless of which terrorist group, lets fight against them together. We have assigned our colleagues on this joint effort, including foreign ministers, defense ministers and intelligence organizations. Where they are not able to move forward, we [presidents] get in the process. The Sochi meeting is an example," Erdoğan said.

TURKISH TROOPS TO BE REINFORCED

The troops in monitoring posts in Idlib must be reinforced, Erdoğan said, referring to the positions of Turkish soldiers along the 12 monitoring posts in Idlib.

"It is true we have been strengthening our soldiers there. We cannot afford to have a weakness there, we will continue to strengthen them. If we do not enforce our monitoring posts, some others can take initiatives and as a results of their actions civilians may be harmed," Erdoğan said.

"Turkey has the biggest problem in this matter. There is no one else with borders to there [Idlib, Syria]. We have 115 kilometers of border on the west and 915 kilometers to the north. We are country that shares a border on all sides. Turkey is the place people escape to, not Iran, Iraq, Russia, Germany or France," Erdoğan said, and added that other countries should not be bothered that Turkey takes measures. The president also criticized the international community for not sharing the humanitarian burden of the conflict in Syria. Erdoğan added that when it comes to rhetoric all parties say they support Syria's territorial integrity, however, this is not reflected in their actions. He said Turkey's aim is to establish a constitution in Syria and free elections with participation by all Syrians. "After this is established, let's all leave Syria. There is no other exit than this solution," Erdoğan said, as he criticized states establishing military bases in Syria.

Erdoğan underlined Turkey is in Syria as a response to demands by the Syrian people.

"No one in Idlib is waving Russian flags, U.S. flags, German flags or French flags. They are waving Turkish flags. There is a meaning to this. They are not Turkish citizens, they are Syrian citizens. We did not leave the oppressed people alone. We even have close kinship and family relations with many of them, our relations are deep with these people," he added.

GERMAN VISIT A STEP TO RESTORE TIES

Erdoğan also commented on his upcoming visit to Germany, saying it will be an opportunity to discuss bilateral diplomatic and economic relations, as well as regional matters.

"We will discuss bilateral relations with Germany in all areas, including political, military, economic and trade. [The] fight against terrorism will also be one of the issues [to discuss]," Erdoğan said. He added that Berlin, similar to Ankara, takes the fight against terrorism seriously.

"I hope that the visit to Germany after a long time will contribute positively to the period ahead. I am hopeful. I felt this also during phone talks, be it with the German president or be it with the chancellor," the president said.

Erdoğan stated that Finance and Treasury Minister Berat Albayrak will also hold a meeting with his German counterpart and that meetings between the Turkish delegation and German companies will also be held as part of the agenda of the visit. During the visit, activities of the PKK terrorist group and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) in Germany will also be discussed, the president said.

Turkey and Germany have been in a normalization process for some time now, after the two countries were locked in heated debates and ultimatums for one-and-a-half years over a series of issues, including the PKK and FETÖ presence in Germany.

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