Russia has called for new measures to hunt down extremist groups in Syria’s Idlib after accusing Turkey of failing to live up to a promise to clear the opposition stronghold of militants.
President Vladimir Putin told his Turkish counterpart during crunch talks in Moscow that they must fight terrorists “wherever they are”, after Russian officials admitted that a ceasefire agreement around Syria’s last rebel-held stronghold had failed.
“We believe that our support for the agreed cessation of hostilities should not supersede our efforts in fighting terrorism, which must be continued,” Mr Putin said, adding that new initiatives would target militants inside the city.
The talks came four months after Moscow agreed to postpone a planned military assault on Idlib in exchange for a promise from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to clear it of militants. But on Wednesday Russia’s foreign ministry said the Islamist extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had “full control” of the area.
Tension between Russia and Turkey highlights the difficulty of bringing peace to Syria’s last rebel-held enclave, where the threat of a full-scale assault last year by Syrian forces sparked fears of a humanitarian disaster in a region crammed with 3m people.
“Unfortunately, there are still a lot of issues there [in Idlib]; both we and our Turkish counterparts see that,” Mr Putin said after three hours of talks. “Mr Erdogan and I have agreed on the ways to remedy this.”
“Our defence ministers have held additional consultations . . . We will seek for all of our agreements to be fulfilled. We share common convictions that we should jointly continue the fight against terrorists, no matter where they are staying, including in the Idlib area,” Mr Putin added.
Mr Erdogan, speaking alongside Mr Putin, said he had “reiterated” his assurances to the Russian leader.
“We will continue to combat terrorist organisations as we have in the past. This is a protracted fight. It cannot be done overnight,” he said.
Ahead of the talks, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said: “The situation taking shape around Idlib is a cause for serious concern. The situation in this de-escalation area is rapidly deteriorating.”
The ceasefire zone has “essentially been taken under the full control of militants from the al-Nusra alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, through the ousting of moderate armed opposition units”, she said, adding that 65 people had been killed and more than 200 injured in more than 1,000 recorded breaches of the four-month ceasefire.
HTS, a constellation of hardline Islamist militants that evolved out of al-Qaeda-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, has wrested control of northern Idlib province from rival opposition fighters. In the past few weeks other armed opposition groups have signed agreements ceding administrative authority to HTS, after it forced them out of several towns in the final rebel-held bastion.
That breaks a key element of the September deal, in which Mr Erdogan agreed that radical extremists would not be allowed to enter a 15km to 20km-deep buffer zone separating the rebels from pro-regime and Syrian army troops.
Mr Erdogan’s deal with Mr Putin forced Russian and Syrian troops to postpone an assault.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, has made clear that he intends to recapture “every inch” of the country. Russian air power and Iran-supported militias have helped him to force victory in the bloody eight-year war, with most of the country now under regime control.
Two aid workers with knowledge of humanitarian operations in Syria said HTS had agreed not to levy fees on shipments of aid into Idlib, where Save the Children says 11,000 children are at risk because of flooding in camps for displaced people.
As well as tackling the subject of Idlib, the Russian and Turkish leaders discussed the future of north-eastern Syria after President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that US troops would pull out.
“Together with our Russian friends, we intend to strengthen our co-ordination further. And what is crucial here is to not allow the creation of a power vacuum after the withdrawal of US forces,” Mr Erdogan said.
The Turkish president has long vowed to launch an operation in the region to clear the region of US-backed Kurdish forces that Turkey views as a security threat. That plan was complicated by Mr Trump’s withdrawal announcement, which unnerved Washington’s regional allies and led Moscow to call for the area to return to Damascus’s control.
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