Turkey on Wednesday warned Iran and Russia to hold back the Syrian regime in bombing the rebel-held northern Idlib province, as tensions mounted ahead of peace talks planned for later this month.
Ankara has been working closely with Russia and Iran to end the Syrian conflict over recent months but has stepped up pressure on Moscow and Tehran as bombardments in Idlib intensified.
Russia wants to bring all the parties in the Syrian conflict together for a conference in its Black Sea resort of Sochi at the end of this month but the tensions with Ankara are proving a major obstacle.
Observers have also warned of a major humanitarian catastrophe in case of more intense intervention in Idlib, especially for tens of thousands of internally displaced people there.
“Iran and Russia should fulfil their responsibility. If you are guarantors – and you are – they should stop the regime,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the state-run Anadolu news agency.
Cavusoglu said Turkey was acting as garantor for the actions of the opposition and it was up to Russia and Iran to do the same for the Syrian government.
Ankara has supported the anti-Assad opposition throughout the almost seven-year Syrian civil war while Russia and Iran have backed Assad.
Turkey summons Iranian and Russian ambassadors
However, despite the differences, Turkey had teamed up with the two other powers in a bid to bring a lasting peace to Syria, even though analysts have long warned the three-way alliance is brittle.
In the biggest public flare-up of tensions with Moscow and Tehran in months, Ankara has already summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors over the Idlib bombing.
Cavusoglu said 95 percent of the violations in Idlib were carried out by the regime and the groups backing it.
Most of Idlib province is controlled by anti-government forces that are dominated by alliance of jihadist groups called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. HTS is led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Syrian government forces have recently upped efforts to impose control over Idlib and the Eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus, the two last rebel bastions in the country.
Russia is hoping to hold a Syria peace congress in Sochi on January 29-30 with the particular aim of setting up a new constitution for post-war Syria.
But Turkey says it will boycott any talks involving the predominantly Kurdish PYD political party and its linked YPG militia which is part of the U.S.-led Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF controls much of northeast Syria.
Turkey views the YPG and PYD as extensions of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a decades-long insurgency mainly in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southwest. The PKK is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and European Union, among others, but the YPG is not so designated by the U.S. or E.U.
A previous attempt in November to convene talks in Sochi failed due to disagreements between the prospective participants, in particular Turkey, and in December, many Syrian rebel groups rejected the Sochi initiative.
“We have said we will not be in any environment … where the YPG is present,” said Cavusoglu. A Turkish foreign ministry official told AFP that Ankara’s attendance at the talks had not been decided.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday “intense contacts” were in progress at expert level between Russia, Iran and Turkey in order to draw up the list of participants.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks Wednesday in Moscow with Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif. Both men emphasised the importance of the Sochi talks, with Zarif saying “we want to move together in the same direction”.
“Sochi has failed to land twice and there is still not a lot of clarity about who will go,” said one European diplomat, asking not to be named.
“We are skeptical. There is a risk it will involve the wrong people at the wrong time,” the diplomat added.
Opposition wants stronger US role in Geneva talks
Nasr al-Hariri, the lead negotiator in the High Negotiations Committee of the rebel Syrian National Coalition, said on Tuesday that the organisation is hoping to persuade the U.S. administration this week to throw its weight behind the U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva and counter the Russia-led Sochi congress.
The Geneva talks are expected to resume on January 21.
“All of us, all of our countries are waiting for an American role” in finding a settlement to the nearly seven-year war, Nasr Hariri told AFP in an interview.
The United States is “the most important player in the Syrian fight, the only state that can make a balance with the Russian influence,” he said.
A delegation led by Hariri hopes to meet this week with U.S. national security adviser H.R McMaster, State Department officials and members of Congress to make their case for U.S. engagement.
Without Washington as an “active political player in Geneva, I think the game will continue, by wasting time, establishing parallel tracks to hijack the political process in Geneva to Sochi, to Astana,” said Hariri.
Hariri said he was told by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres that no decision had been made yet on whether the UN would take part in the Sochi conference.
The SNC has not taken a “final decision” on whether to boycott the Sochi talks, Hariri said.
Eight rounds of talks in Geneva have repeatedly stumbled over Assad’s fate, with negotiators from Damascus refusing to meet the opposition directly until it drops demands that he leave office.
Drone attacks on Russian bases from Idlib province
The Russian defence ministry has written to Turkish army chief Hulusi Akar and intelligence supremo Hakan Fidan to insist that the terms of a ceasefire are upheld, the defence ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said.
A likely future sticking point between Russia and Turkey is also the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Ankara has vehemently opposed throughout the conflict and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month described as a “terrorist.”
“Potential humanitarian catastrophe”
According to European officials, some 1.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Idlib while over 70,000 fled into the area in the last months following fighting elsewhere in Syria.
“We have a potential humanitarian catastrophe with a lot of people in a potentially very small area,” said the European diplomat. “The concern is that they want to kettle HTS into a very small area.”
With reporting from AFP