ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey hopes a summit with Iranian and Russian leaders in Tehran on Friday will avert a Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held Idlib enclave and prevent a new influx of refugees to Turkey, President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying.
Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, resumed air strikes against insurgents in Idlib on Tuesday following weeks of bombardment and shelling by pro-Syrian government forces in an apparent prelude to a full-scale offensive against the rebels’ last major enclave.
The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are due to meet on Friday in Iran and are expected to discuss the situation in northwestern Syria. Turkey, which backs rebels against Assad, has said an offensive on Idlib would be disastrous. Ankara is sheltering 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
“We will take the situation to a positive point at this summit .... God willing, we will be able to hinder the Syrian government’s extremism in the region,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted Erdogan as saying overnight.
On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu echoed his comments and called to end the bombing of Idlib, where millions of civilians also live.
“If the problem here is the radical groups, a common strategy needs to be adopted. Joint work can be done to eliminate these groups but the solution is definitely not to bomb Idlib in its entirety,” Cavusoglu told a press conference.
Turkey has told Russia that these attacks were wrong, particularly before the Tehran summit, he added.
Russia has described Idlib as a “nest of terrorists” and a “festering abscess” that must be resolved. A Syrian rebel and a war monitor said Russian air strikes on the province had resumed on Tuesday after a pause of several weeks.
Erdogan, speaking to reporters on his plane back from a visit to Kyrgyzstan, also warned about the potential influx of refugees from Idlib to Turkey in the case of such an offensive, the Hurriyet said.
“In a situation like this, where will the fleeing people go to? A large proportion of them will come to Turkey,” he was quoted as saying.
On Wednesday, Turkey’s defence ministry said Turkish and Russian officials had met in Ankara to hold five days of meetings on developments in Syria. It said joint efforts would continue.
Russia’s ambassador to Ankara was later cited by broadcaster NTV as saying Turkey and Russia were in contact regarding the latest developments in northern Syria.
“The summit that will be held in Iran on Friday is a great opportunity for a solution in Syria,” ambassador Aleksei Erkhov was quoted as saying.
Erdogan also said a road map for the northern Syrian city of Manbij endorsed by Ankara and Washington in June was not progressing well, according to the Hurriyet.
As part of the road map, Turkish and U.S. forces are now carrying out patrols in Manbij to clear the area of YPG militants, which Turkey views as a terrorist organisation linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.
“We are not at an ideal point (on Manbij). Unfortunately the agreement made is not going forward in the same direction as the initial discussions,” Erdogan was quoted as saying.
In a meeting on Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, discussed the developments in Syria.
Later on Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by phone to his U.S. counterpart, Mike Pompeo, to discuss developments in Idlib and Manbij, as well as bilateral ties, a diplomatic source said, amid a widening row between the NATO allies.
Both diplomats agreed that an Syrian government offensive in Idlib would be “an unacceptable, reckless escalation”, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Humeyra Pamuk, David Dolan and Matthew Mpoke Bigg