President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed Turkey would not take the “smallest step back” in an escalating stand-off with Damascus and Russia over the northern Syrian region of Idlib, as 14 EU ministers called for a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, a meeting between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is expected to take place, the Turkish foreign minister said, ahead of a possible summit including EU heavyweights Germany and France to find a political solution to the Idlib crisis.
“We will not take the smallest step back in Idlib,” Erdogan told the ruling party’s lawmakers in parliament in Ankara. “We will certainly push the regime outside the borders we designated and ensure the return of the people to their homes.”
Now the epicenter of the nearly nine-year long conflict in Syria, Idlib has in recent weeks become the theater of conflict between Turkey, which supports opposition groups in the area, and the regime, which is backed by Russia.
Ankara has confirmed as many as 17 Turkish security personnel have been killed this month alone.
Erdogan bluntly warned the Syrian regime to “stop its attacks as soon as possible” and to pull back by the end of February.
As part of its deal with Russia, Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib but several have come under fire from regime forces.
“The time we have given to those who besieged our observation towers is running out,” Erdogan said. “We are planning to save our observation posts from the besiegers one way or another by the end of this month.”
Erdogan added that “the biggest problem we currently have is that we cannot use the air space” over Idlib which is controlled by Russia.
“God willing, we will find a solution soon.”
Shortly after he was speaking, Russian diplomats and military officials arrived in Ankara for talks with their Turkish counterparts. The talks began in the afternoon, according to media reports.
Similar contacts last week ended with no concrete results.
In recent weeks Damascus, backed by Russian air strikes, has pressed a major offensive against the remaining territory held by the opposition in Idlib.
In a statement read on public television, the Syrian army on Wednesday announced it had “regained control” of a dozen areas in recent days, including Kafranbel in the south of Idlib, a town known to have been among the first to rebel against Damascus.
The parts of Idlib still held by extremists and Turkish-backed opposition factions has shrunk to an area roughly the size of Majorca, hosting more than three million people — half of them already displaced by violence elsewhere.
The United Nations has warned against an imminent “bloodbath” amid the continuing fighting.
Putin, Erdogan meeting
While Western capitals have been criticized for failing to exert any influence on the Idlib situation, the foreign ministers of 14 European nations — including Germany, France, Spain and Ireland — issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on Moscow and Ankara to “de-escalate” the situation.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, his German counterpart Heiko Maas and the foreign ministers of 12 other EU countries warned that what Moscow has presented as a fight against terrorism did not justify “massive violations of international humanitarian law”.
In an open letter published in French daily Le Monde, the ministers urged the Syrian regime and Moscow to “immediately end hostilities” and negotiate with Turkey “to achieve a de-escalation.”
A day earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rejected calls for a halt to the Russian-backed incentive, saying it would be tantamount to “capitulating before terrorists.”
The 14 ministers said they were “perfectly lucid about the presence of radical groups in Idlib” but said this did not justify “incessant airstrikes and the dropping of barrel bombs”.
While backing opposite sides, Russia and Turkey have worked to end the conflict but strains have soared in recent weeks over Idlib.
Russia, on Tuesday, rejected the idea of a ceasefire in Idlib.
The tensions are seen as the biggest threat to Ankara-Moscow ties since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria in November 2015.
The Kremlin indicated Tuesday however, that an Erdogan-Putin meeting was not on the cards, also saying that a tripartite summit with another regime ally Iran could be planned instead of a multilateral one with France and Germany.