A Turkish delegation is expected to head to Russia on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province as the humanitarian crisis caused by Syrian regime attacks reached concerning levels.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians in Idlib province have been scrambling to escape a widening, multifront offensive by the Bashar Assad regime, leading Turkey and Russia to escalate diplomatic efforts to find a solution.
On Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said after meeting his German counterpart on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference that a Turkish delegation was due to visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the situation in Idlib, the latest opposition stronghold.
This meeting will be the third attempt of Turkey and Russia to resolve the Idlib crisis, following two previous visits by a Russian delegation to Ankara. The first meeting took place over the weekend of Feb. 8 in the capital province of Ankara, followed by a second meeting two days later.
The delegations discussed steps to boost the political process in the war-torn country in a three-hour meeting Saturday, which stressed the need to ensure peace on the ground. They decided to resume talks in the coming weeks.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Önal chaired the Turkish delegation, with representatives from the National Defense Ministry, General Staff and National Intelligence Organization.
The Russian side – chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin and Special Envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev – comprised of representatives from military and intelligence circles.
However, despite the efforts, it was announced by Çavuşoğlu that there had been no consensus with the visiting Russian delegation so far regarding the escalating situation in Idlib.
It was decided that Idlib would remain a de-escalation zone, guaranteed by the Russian government in the bilateral Sochi deal in September 2018 and the trilateral deal between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran. Notwithstanding, Russia has been providing significant air support to the regime in its brutal campaign to capture Idlib, which has intensified since November.
With backing from Russia, Syrian regime troops have been on the offensive for weeks in Idlib and parts of Aleppo, triggering a humanitarian crisis with some 700,000 people fleeing their homes and surging north toward the Turkish border. More than 1,800 civilians have also been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces since then, flouting both the 2018 cease-fire and a new one that started on Jan. 12.
Some 2 million more people could head for the Turkish-Syrian border if no cease-fire is achieved, the foreign minister added during his Saturday speech.
"There are already people coming to our border, and with Germany's support, we are going to build temporary shelters but these are temporary solutions," Çavuşoğlu said. "We need a cease-fire," he indicated.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also said he pushed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was also in Munich, for Russia to lean on the Assad regime to stop the attacks.
"We are very worried that this is going to become a humanitarian catastrophe if the fighting there doesn't stop," he said.
Çavuşoglu said later Saturday that he held a positive meeting with Lavrov.
The Russian foreign minister told the Munich conference after that meeting that parts of Idlib remain "one of the last hotbeds of terrorism, at least the only one on the west bank of the Euphrates."
Lavrov said agreements between Moscow and Ankara "imply both a cease-fire and a demilitarized zone, but most importantly draws a line between the normal opposition and terrorists."
"These agreements do not mean the hard fighting against the terrorist threat will stop," he said.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said at a news conference that Russia is the key to stopping the crisis since it provides the Syrian government with aerial support.
"Russia offers various excuses," he said.
Roth acknowledged the presence of thousands of extremists in Idlib but said: "that does not justify the indiscriminate bombardment of the civilian population."
"What is needed now as a matter of humanitarian concern for the people of Idlib and as a matter of basic avoidance of another refugee crisis, is firm pressure on (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to stop," he said. He urged Europe to exert that pressure.
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