(AFP) – The presidents of Russia and Turkey, which are backing different sides in the Syrian conflict, were due to meet in the Russian Black sea resort city of Sochi on September 17 for talks on an expected Syrian government offensive on the last rebel stronghold in the country’s northwest.
The meeting comes 10 days after a summit between Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and their Iranian counterpart, President Hassan Rohani, failed to produce a compromise in a bid to avert an assault in Idlib Province which the Turkish president has warned would ignite a “bloodbath.”
Moscow and Tehran have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s crucial support throughout the war, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.
Speaking in Berlin on September 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow will keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be, but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee.
Turkey is backing rebel groups and has troops in Syria’s north. It fears that a large-scale assault on Idlib, which lies on its southern border, could trigger a massive flow of refugees onto its soil. The country is already home to more than 3 million Syrians who have fled the war.
While backing separate sides, Turkey, Russia, and Iran have launched a negotiations process last year in the Kazakh capital, Astana, mainly dealing with battlefield issues, such as cease-fires and de-escalation zones.
A separate UN-led round of talks addressing political issues has taken place in Geneva.
A possible compromise from the ongoing negotiations could take the form of a “limited military operation or surgical strikes” targeting the Al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, which is believed to be the dominant force among rebels in Idlib Province, Abdul Wahab Assi, an analyst at the Syria-based Jusoor Studies Center, told the AFP news agency.
Assi said the sides could also agree to modify the borders of the de-escalation zones to keep armed rebels from certain sectors. Moscow may be open to such a plan as long as it would secure the Aleppo-Damascus highway and put an end to drone attacks launched from Idlib against Russia’s Hmeimim air base in the neighboring province of Latakia, the analyst said.
Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan said the lack of an agreement with Ankara could push Moscow and the Syrian regime to stage an operation that will last “months” rather than a full-fledged attack.
The United Nations expects up to 900,000 people to flee if Syrian government forces launch a large-scale offensive on Idlib, home to some 3 million people. The 7 1/2-year war has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions.