Erdogan urges Russia, Iran to stop ‘disaster’ in Syria’s Idlib

The destruction caused by the regime bombings in the town of Al-Habit on the southern edges of the opposition-held Idlib province. (AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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Erdogan urges Russia, Iran to stop ‘disaster’ in Syria’s Idlib

  • Erdogan has called for a cease-fire in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, as an assault by Syrian regime forces is expected any day
  • The comments came four days after the Turkish president met his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Tehran

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday called on Russia and Iran to halt a looming “humanitarian disaster” in Idlib, saying Syrians there could not be left to the mercy of President Bashar Assad.

Erdogan has called for a cease-fire in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, as an assault by Syrian regime forces is expected any day.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Erdogan said the West had an “obligation to stop the next bloodshed” but that regime allies Moscow and Tehran were “likewise responsible for stopping this humanitarian disaster.”

The comments came four days after the Turkish president met his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Tehran, where Erdogan sought to avert a bloody assault in Idlib. 

Analysts said Erdogan failed at the summit to achieve his aim, and his comments appear to indicate growing frustration in Turkey that Iran and Russia are not reining in Assad.

While Turkey has been one of the main supporters of the Syrian opposition and called for Assad’s ouster, Ankara has until now worked closely with Assad’s allies Moscow and Tehran to find a political solution to the conflict. 

The UN has warned a large-scale military operation could create “the worst humanitarian catastrophe” of this century in Idlib, home to some 3 million people — about half of them displaced from other parts of the country.

“The consequences of inaction are immense. We cannot leave the Syrian people to the mercy of Bashar Assad,” Erdogan wrote.

The Turkish leader also criticized Assad’s bid to legitimize the fight in Idlib as a counter-terrorism operation.

“Innocent people must not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism,” he wrote.

Idlib’s most powerful armed faction is the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group, which Ankara officially designated a “terrorist” group last month.

Erdogan acknowledged that groups such as HTS “remain active in this area” but insisted that such fighters “account for a fraction of Idlib’s population.” 

He called for a “comprehensive international counter-terrorism operation” and said that the assistance of pro-Ankara moderate fighters will be “crucial” in Idlib.

Turkey has already taken in more than 3 million refugees from Syria and Ankara fears any large offensive will lead to a new influx of up to two million people from Idlib.

The civil war has claimed about 350,000 lives since 2011.

Meanwhile, an ambush by Daesh has killed 21 regime fighters in Syria’s southern province of Sweida, a Britain-based war monitor said on Tuesday.

The attack occurred late on Monday in the rural Tulul Al-Safa area of the province, about 100 km southeast of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Eight radical fighters were also killed in subsequent clashes in the area, which is the militants’ last bastion in Sweida, the observatory said.

State news agency SANA reported heavy clashes with Daesh in the area, adding that regime aircraft and artillery “targeted hideouts and positions” held by the group.

Regime forces have been fighting Daesh on Sweida’s arid plains since terrorists carried out a wave of attacks in the mainly Druze province on July 25, killing 250 people, according to the Observatory.

During their rampage, which targeted the provincial capital as well as rural areas, the insurgents also took about around 30 hostages, mostly women and their children.

At least 27 are believed to still be held, according to Human Rights Watch, after Daesh said it had beheaded a 19-year-old man and announced an elderly woman had died. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the hostages were believed to be held captive in Tulul Al-Safa.

A source in Sweida told AFP that families had had no word of their kidnapped relatives in weeks.

Daesh has lost nearly all of the great swathes of territory straddling Iraq and Syria which it seized in 2014, but retains a presence in the vast desert that lies between Damascus and the Iraqi border, and holds a pocket in the Euphrates Valley in the east.

A Kurdish-Arab alliance launched an assault on the pocket’s main town of Hajjin on Monday, with support from the US-led coalition fighting Daesh.


Trump administration messages open-ended Syria presence

Updated 5 min 58 sec ago
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Trump administration messages open-ended Syria presence

  • The US military has been involved in Syria since late 2014 and now has more than 2,000 troops in the country
  • US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that quitting Syria too fast would be a ‘strategic blunder’
WASHINGTON: Six months after President Donald Trump said he wants US troops out of Syria, his top officials are hammering home what has become increasingly obvious: the US isn’t going anywhere.
Trump administration members say there can be no troop pull-out until the Daesh is permanently defeated — a subjective metric for a stubborn insurgency where the militants have shown tenacity in clinging to their last pockets of terrain.
The US military has been involved in Syria since late 2014 and now has more than 2,000 troops in the country, mainly working to train and advise local Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters.
With broad gains on the battlefield and the defeat of Daesh` looking inevitable, Trump in March said he wanted US troops out of Syria “very soon,” later adding the mission would come to a “rapid end.”
But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that quitting Syria too fast would be a “strategic blunder” and James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria engagement, this month said the US was “not in a hurry” to leave the war-torn nation.
“Getting rid of the ‘caliphate’ doesn’t mean you then blindly say okay, we got rid of it, march out, and then wonder why the ‘caliphate’ comes back,” Mattis told Pentagon reporters this week.
“This is not a conventional war where you raise a flag over the enemy’s capital and they sign a peace treaty. It’s not that kind of an enemy.”
Then on Monday, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, a long-time Iran hawk, pushed the idea of a US withdrawal even further off, tying such an event to Iran’s actions in Syria.
“We’re not going to leave (Syria) as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders,” he told reporters.
“That includes Iranian proxies and militias,” he added.
With war still raging in Afghanistan 17 years since the US-led invasion, and thousands of US troops stationed in Iraq after the US invaded in 2003, the prospect of a yet another open-ended engagement worries some.
“US policy is now to stay in Syria as long as Iran stays, and Iran doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave, and there is the chance for escalation, or accidents, involving Russian forces,” Andrew Parasiliti of the RAND Corporation said.
On September 17, Syrian air defenses accidentally shot down a Russian military plane over the Mediterranean, killing all 15 crew members, as Israel was carrying out a raid on a Syrian army facility.
Moscow has blamed Israel for the incident, saying its pilots used the Russian plane as “cover” while conducting the air strike.
France on Monday warned that the Middle East risks endless war unless a peace agreement can be reached in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad and “those who support him have a responsibility to work for a political solution,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters at the United Nations.
“If not, we risk heading toward a sort of perpetual war in the area,” he said.