Turkey agreed to differentiate between normal opposition forces and terrorists in Syria’s northwestern Idlib as part of a deal reached with Russia, Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday, adding that the process is going slowly.
“There is a special agreement between the Russian leader and the Turkish president in Idlib. Our Turkish interlocutors took on the responsibility to distinguish the normal opposition from terrorists. This had to be done long before, but it is proceeding slowly,” Lavrov told reporters in New York upon being asked why attacks on the last opposition bastion have been increasing despite the agreement.
Lavrov further said that Russia is in periodic contact with the United States regarding the east of the Euphrates while he said Washington’s presence in al-Tanf and Rukban is unacceptable.
He reiterated that Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will discuss the issue of Idlib in their upcoming meeting on Sept. 29 in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Russia is the main ally of the Syrian regime, while Turkey supports groups that have fought to unseat Bashar Assad. However, Russian and Turkish troops have cooperated in Idlib, the final holdout of opposition forces, and in seeking a political solution in the war-torn country.
Erdogan said on Friday he would seek to take relations with Moscow “much further” when he meets Putin. “We strive to further our bilateral relations with Russia,” he emphasized.
Despite backing opposing sides in both the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, Turkey and Russia have forged close cooperation in the defense, energy and tourism sectors.
NATO member Turkey has bought Russian S-400 air defenses – leading to U.S. sanctions on Turkish defense industries – and has been in talks with Russia over possibly buying a second batch.
Ankara and Moscow were rivals in Nagorno-Karabakh during fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenian forces last year. Russia eventually brokered a ceasefire between Turkey-backed Azerbaijan and Armenia, and it is working with Ankara to monitor it.
Russia joined Syria’s now 10-year conflict in September 2015, when the regime military appeared close to collapse. Moscow has since helped in tipping the balance of power in favor of Assad, whose forces now control much of the country. Hundreds of Russian troops are deployed across Syria, and they also have a military air base along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
During the past few years, Russian warplanes targeted the areas under the control of the Syrian opposition, initially launching attacks from Hmeimim Air Base in the west of the country.
Human rights organizations have published several reports accusing Russia of the death of tens of thousands of civilians in Syria since its intervention in 2015, while the international community has taken some actions against the Russia-backed Assad regime’s war crimes.
Furthermore, Putin and Assad recently met in Moscow to discuss the cooperation between their armies and how to continue operations to gain control of the last opposition-held areas in Syria. Putin blasted the presence of “foreign forces" in parts of Syria – an apparent reference to hundreds of U.S. troops who are in eastern Syria working with YPG/PKK terrorists, as well as Turkish troops in northern Syria. Putin said the presence of the foreigners is illegal because they have no approval by the U.N. or the Assad regime.
The Idlib region is home to nearly 3 million people, two-thirds of them displaced from other parts of the country.
Nearly 75% of the total population in the opposition-held Idlib region depends on humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs as 1.6 million people continue to live in camps or informal settlements, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
For years, the Assad regime has ignored the needs and safety of the Syrian people, only eyeing further gains of territory and crushing the opposition. With this aim, the regime has for years bombed civilian facilities such as schools, hospitals and residential areas, causing the displacement of almost half of the country's population.
The situation of the people in Idlib worsened when the Assad regime, backed by Russia, launched an offensive on the province, causing the largest one-time displacement in the history of the Syrian civil war and a huge humanitarian tragedy, according to the U.N.
Frequent bombings and shelling have led to nearly 50% of health facilities being out of service, just as the Syrian people need them the most amid the coronavirus pandemic. Living in overcrowded tent camps or even out in the open in safe areas near the Turkish border, many are struggling to meet even basic needs.
The Idlib de-escalation zone was forged under an agreement between Turkey and Russia. The area has been the subject of multiple cease-fire agreements, which have been frequently violated by the Assad regime and its allies.
A fragile truce was brokered between Moscow and Ankara in March 2020 in response to months of fighting by the Russia-backed regime. Almost a million people have fled the Bashar Assad regime’s offensive yet the regime still frequently carries out attacks on civilians, hindering most from returning to their homes and forcing them to stay in makeshift camps.