Erdogan urges Russia to restrain Syria regime in Idlib
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to halt the Syrian regime's violence in Idlib on Friday as efforts intensified to avoid more bloodshed in the final rebel holdout.
Russian air strikes in the northwestern province of Idlib are bolstering a Syrian government offensive that has forced nearly one million civilians to flee - the biggest wave of displacement of the nine-year conflict.
"The president during the call stressed that the regime should be restrained in Idlib and that the humanitarian crisis must be stopped," the Turkish presidency said in a statement after the two leaders spoke by phone.
Erdogan told Putin the solution was to return to the Sochi agreement they signed in 2018, which allowed Turkey to establish military posts across Idlib designed to prevent a regime assault.
That deal has been increasingly set aside as Syrian forces advance steadily into the region.
Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in the province, has lost 16 military personnel this month in clashes with Syrian troops. It has reinforced its positions and called on President Bashar al-Assad to pull his forces back.
Erdogan also held a three-way call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which he called for "concrete actions to prevent a humanitarian crisis".
Establish 'safe zone'
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.
Also 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 United Nations 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.
Erdogan and Putin said they were "bound to all agreements" during the call and also discussed developments in Libya, the Turkish presidency said, without giving details.