Putin: We should not tolerate militants in Syria's Idlib
Updated 11:38, 15-Feb-2019
CGTN
01:57

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday told his Turkish and Iranian counterparts that the presence of what he called terrorist groups in Syria's Idlib region should not be tolerated. 

Putin said at the beginning of the talks on Thursday that he wants to reach an agreement to "ensure a lasting de-escalation" in the region, AP reported. He said that he supports the cease-fire deal but added that "this doesn't mean that we're going to put with the presence of terrorist groups" in Idlib and called on Turkey and Iran to "consider concrete steps" to destroy "the hotbed of terrorists."

Rouhani backed the push to clear Syria's Idlib region of former Nusra Front fighters, saying it would be wrong to let them off the hook because they had changed their name.

Moscow has complained that Islamic militants who used to belong to the Nusra Front group are now in control of much of Idlib and wants military action to drive them out. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

All three countries have forces on the ground in Syria where they have coordinated their efforts despite sometimes differing priorities and interests.

But a planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in December, has engendered new tensions between Moscow and Ankara in particular.

Russia to Turkey: You can't have Syrian safe zone without Assad's consent

Speaking ahead of the start of the Sochi summit on Syria, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Ankara would need Assad's green light to create any safe zone inside Syrian borders.

"The question of the presence of a military contingent acting on the authority of a third country on the territory of a sovereign country and especially Syria must be decided directly by Damascus," Maria Zakharova said in answer to a question about the Turkish safe zone plan. "That's our base position."

But that is likely to be an unappealing prospect for Erdogan, who has called for Assad to step down after years of civil war that has shattered his country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

Turkey wants to set up what it calls a safe zone in northeast Syria, parts of which are now controlled by U.S. forces, and for the area near the Turkish border to be cleared of the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia.

Idlib pressure

The Kremlin on Thursday also made clear that its patience with Turkey over a joint deal to enforce a demilitarized zone in the northwestern Idlib region was running short.

Moscow and Ankara brokered the deal in September, saying they wanted the region free of heavy weapons and jihadists. The agreement helped avert a government assault on the region, the last major bastion of Assad's opponents.

But Moscow has since complained that Islamist militants who used to belong to the Nusra Front group are now in control there and wants military action to drive them out.

Ankara is less keen as it is concerned about potential refugee flows from Idlib in the event of a military operation, and wants to retain its influence in a region on its border.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Sochi, Russia, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Sochi, Russia, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

It also does not want developments in Idlib to distract from its plan to set up a safe zone in the northeast.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow wanted action on Idlib, referring to the "continued presence there of terrorist groups."

Rouhani, Erdogan hails U.S. withdrawal

At Thursday's meeting with Putin, Erdogan said the planned U.S. pull-out made it more important for other foreign powers to work together in Syria while Rouhani called the U.S. withdrawal from Syria "good news".

"But we can never trust the Americans' words, promises, and commitment," Rouhani said at Tehran's Mehrabad airport. "The Damascus government must be put in control of all of Syria's territories."

"The U.S. withdrawal decision is one of the most important tests ahead of us. The uncertainty over how the decision will be implemented remains. It is very very important that we work together in this new situation," Erdogan said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, February 14, 2019. /VCG Photo

As a sign of cooperation, he said Russia and Turkey had agreed to start "joint patrols" in order to contain "radical groups" in Idlib Province, a northwestern region of Syria still under rebel control. AP reported that Erdogan said Turkey has worked "extraordinary hard to preserve the calm in Idlib" and expects the Syrian government to abide by the cease-fire.

He said there had been a "military agreement" on the joint patrols but provided no further details.

Erdogan also called for the removal of the Kurdish forces battling ISIL in northeastern Syria.

"Syria's territorial integrity cannot be ensured and that region cannot be returned to its real owners before PYD-YPG is cleared from Manbij and the east of Euphrates," Erdogan said.

In his meeting with Putin ahead of the talks, Rouhani called on Moscow to "coordinate more on efforts aimed at fighting terrorism" in Syria.

Both Russia and Iran have provided military backing to Assad's forces, while Turkey has supported rebel groups in the north who have fought with the Kurds.

(Cover: A girl holds a Syrian flag and a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. /Reuters Photo)

Source(s): AFP ,Reuters