Erdogan ramps up diplomatic push over Syria crisis

Friday, February 21, 2020

Russian air strikes in the northwestern province of Idlib are boosting a Syrian government offensive that has forced nearly one million civilians to flee — the biggest wave of displacement of the nine-year conflict.

Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in Idlib, has lost 16 military personnel this month in clashes with Syrian forces. It has bolstered its positions and called for Syrian forces to pull back.

Erdogan told reporters he would speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin at 1500 GMT after an earlier three-way call with the leaders of France and Germany.

His office said the Turkish leader had “emphasised the importance of providing strong support through concrete actions to prevent a humanitarian crisis” during the call with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Turkey is determined to prevent a fresh influx of displaced people adding to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it already hosts.

With Ankara threatening an “imminent” operation against the Syrian regime, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar inspected troops gathered at the Syrian border on Friday.

Erdogan spoke of establishing a “safe zone” to provide shelter and support to fleeing civilians facing harsh winter conditions, adding that Turkish organisations were already building structures in the area.

“Our work continues. We will have a discussion with Putin. I hope we will take a beneficial step with this,” he said.

Merkel and Macron also held talks with Putin on Thursday, later calling for the fighting to end and proposing a four-way summit with Erdogan.

A Kremlin spokesman told reporters on Friday that “the possibility of holding a summit is under discussion”, but that there was still no decision.

‘Horrendous conditions’

Earlier on Friday, the EU’s 27 leaders condemned Syrian government attacks, saying the offensive was “causing enormous human suffering”.

“The EU urges all parties to the conflict to fully respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law and to allow unimpeded and direct humanitarian access to all those in need,” they said in a statement.

Syrian aid workers have put out desperate calls for a ceasefire and international help.

The UN says 900,000 people — more than half of them children — have been displaced in “horrendous conditions” since December 1, when the latest offensive began.

Erdogan also commented on the conflict in Libya, in which Turkey again finds itself on opposing sides to Russia.

For the first time, he confirmed that Turkey had sent Syrian fighters to Libya to support the UN-backed government in Tripoli in its battle against Khalifa Haftar, a military strongman who counts Moscow as an ally.

1/1 Map of Syria showing northwestern Idlib province where the Russian-backed regime offensive and bombardment has displaced nearly 900,000 people since December.

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