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Erdogan hosts leaders of Russia & Iran as he pushes for border ‘safe zone’ in Idlib

Erdogan hosts leaders of Russia & Iran as he pushes for border ‘safe zone’ in Idlib
Ankara hosts a trilateral meeting on Monday where President Erdogan is expected to parley with his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a buffer zone along the border to diminish a possible inflow of refugees from Idlib province.

Idlib, which is located in the northwestern part of Syria, is one of two large chunks of the country not yet controlled by Damascus. Some of the rebel groups based there are backed by Turkey, but there is also a strong presence of jihadists, over whom Ankara has little leverage. Last September President Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to convince Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani to put pressure on Damascus and prevent any attempts to capture the province to avoid civilian casualties. The hope was that Turkey could use its sway on the rebels to secure a lasting ceasefire, but this never happened. Attacks continued on Syrian government positions and villages under its control and so did attempts to bomb the Russian air base in neighboring Latakia with drones.

Also on rt.com Erdogan accuses US of favoring ‘terrorists’ in Syria, says Turkey will set up safe zone on its own

Last month a major Syrian Army offensive backed by Russian warplanes resulted in the capture of a number of villages and towns in Idlib province, including the strategically located Khan Sheikhoun. Fearing that Damascus would go on and take Idlib city, the provincial capital, by force thousands of people moved north closer to the Turkish border. Ankara already hosts an estimated 3.6 million refugees from Syria and has been complaining that it carries an unfair burden while the international community and particularly European nations fail to keep their due. The arrangement is already unpopular among ordinary Turks, who see refugees as one of the reasons for an economic slowdown. A new wave of people coming across the border, some of whom may well be radical Islamists in civilian disguise, is bound to hit Erdogan’s approval ratings.

Ankara’s favored solution to the problem is to establish a 30km (18 miles) ‘safe zone’ along the border, where refugees would be settled in Idlib. The Syrian government would likely object to such a violation of its sovereignty, but unlike Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have the leverage to convince Damascus to get along with it.

The Idlib ‘safe zone’ proposal is not unlike what Erdogan wants to get from the US in northeastern Syria, where the second swath of Syrian land not controlled by Damascus is located. The territory east of the Euphrates River is Kurdish territory, which they keep with the military and diplomatic backing of Washington. Ankara sees Syrian Kurds as a major security threat, an extension of its domestic Kurdish insurgency. Turkey wants a Kurd-free border buffer zone in northeastern Syria, where potentially some of the refugees currently living in Turkey could be resettled. However the progress in establishing this safe zone has been slow-paced at best.

Apart from the Syrian debacle Erdogan and Putin may also discuss closer military ties between their countries, said Nikita Mendkovich, a Middle East researcher with the Russian International Affairs Council, a Moscow-based think-tank. “Interest in Russian weapons has grown considerably throughout the region since the 2015-17 events in Syria, which is one of the factors of dwindling influence of Washington,” he told RT. Turkey, a NATO member, purchased advanced S-400 long-range surface-to-air missiles from Russia despite threats of sanctions coming from Washington.

In late August the Turkish president visited Moscow and Putin showcased some of Russia’s best military technology for his guest. After Washington kicked Ankara out of its F-35 program in retaliation for the S-400 deal, Moscow said it would be willing to sell its state-of-the-art fighter jets instead, possibly including the top-tier Su-57.

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