Russia and Turkey fail to reach deal to end Syria offensive

Moscow says Syrian government forces are upholding previous agreement but are reacting to provocations

Russia and Turkey have failed to agree on a new de-escalation deal for north-west Syria, Moscow said on Wednesday.

Talks between the two sides in the Russian capital had been aimed at reducing violence as the Syrian government and its allies embark on a major assault on the country’s last rebel enclave in Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo.

“We did not make any new demands during talks with Turkey,” Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said alongside his Jordanian equal, Ayman Al Safadi.

"We call on Ankara to implement what was agreed upon in Idlib between the Russian and Turkish presidents."

Moscow supports Syrian President Bashar Al Assad while Ankara backs proxy militias, particularly in Idlib province.

With the US decreasing its presence in the embattled country, Russia and Turkey have also found themselves pre-eminent geopolitical forces.

The two sides previously hashed out a de-escalation agreement last August intended to avert a regime advance that Turkey worried would send hundreds of thousands of refugees heading towards its border.

The deal came after a surprise rapprochement between Russia and Turkey, as Ankara appeared to reorient itself partially from Nato towards Moscow.

This culminated with Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia last year.

But the deal on Syria was never fully implemented and merely delayed the offensive that the regime finally launched in December.

The offensive in Idlib has driven a wedge between Russia and Turkey. Ankara now finds itself on the verge of all-out war with Damascus.

“Attacks on Syrian and Russian forces from Idlib are continuing,” Mr Lavrov said. “Terrorist groups must be not a part of any talks and agreements on Idlib.”

Mr Al Safadi said a political solution was needed to end the crisis.

“All sides have agreed that the Syria crisis must come to an end,” he said.

After nearly 10 years of civil war, the stage has been set for perhaps the worst humanitarian in Syria crisis so far.

Turkish troops have amassed at the border and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded that regime forces give up recent territorial gains in Idlib before the end of February.

On Wednesday, Mr Erdogan threatened to launch an operation in Idlib if that deadline were not met.

Despite this pressure, Mr Al Assad’s forces have continued to push further into Idlib.

Mr Lavrov said Syrian government forces were upholding the terms of previous agreements between Russia and Turkey, but are reacting to provocations.

Russia has repeatedly said that its operations in Idlib were a response to Turkey’s failure to fulfil its pledges under the 2018 Sochi Agreement to curb the strength of militias.

The power of groups like the Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham has, if anything, grown under Turkey’s watch.

Fadi Hakura, a consulting fellow on Chatham House’s Europe Programme, said Ankara was isolated after the failed talks in Moscow and with Damascus focused on completing its offensive.

“Nato has already indicated that they will not support any military intervention in Idlib,” Mr Hakura told The National.

“The United States, while paying lip-service to Erdogan in an attempt to fracture the Russia-Turkey alliance, is disengaging from Syria and the broader Middle East.”

Mr Hakura said a misstep from Turkey at this point in the standoff could be devastating.

“Turkey may miscalculate by engaging in a military operation against Assad's forces, which will have very serious repercussions on a very fragile Turkish economy and intensify the confrontation with Russia and Iran with minimal to no western backing,” he said.

Moscow and Ankara have also clashed over the fate of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees within Turkey’s border.

Russia wants direct talks between Turkey and Damascus over the refugee crisis, which Turkey has resisted.

Humanitarian organisations have warned of the dire situation in the north-western Syrian province.

The Syrian government’s control of the motorway connecting Damascus and Aleppo, threatening densely populated areas to the west, is of particular concern.

“Attacks are now taking place in areas that were previously considered to be safe," said Julien Delozanne, Medecins Sans Frontieres' head of mission for Syria.

"The people fleeing north are being squeezed into a territory that is getting smaller and smaller, between the frontline to the east and the closed Turkish border to the west.

“Living conditions in the camps for displaced people are already harsh. If the military operation continues, a new influx of people to the area will make the situation even worse.”

Updated: February 20, 2020 12:28 AM

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