Erdogan, Trump discuss ways to end crisis in Syria's Idlib

A December 2019 photo shows Trump (left) and Erdogan meeting at a Nato summit in Britain.
A December 2019 photo shows Trump (left) and Erdogan meeting at a Nato summit in Britain.PHOTO: AFP

ANKARA (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday (Feb 15) discussed with US counterpart Donald Trump ways to end the crisis in Idlib, Syria's last major rebel bastion, and condemned Damascus' attacks there, the Turkish presidency said.

"Stressing that the regime's most recent attacks are unacceptable, the president and Trump exchanged views on ways to end the crisis in Idlib without further delay," the presidency said in a statement after the two leaders spoke on the phone.

The situation in Syria has become more tense as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intensifies his assault on Idlib backed by Moscow air power.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed while 800,000 Syrians have been forced to leave their homes to flee the offensive since December, according to the United Nations.

Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of the 2018 Ankara-Moscow agreement made in southern city of Sochi.

Erdogan threatened to attack Damascus if regime forces did not return to the positions agreed in the Sochi deal before the end of February after 14 Turks were killed by Syrian regime shelling in Idlib this month.

"We'll do the job ourselves," he said in a televised speech in Istanbul. He added that Turkey was creating a "safe zone" in Idlib and building homes for people fleeing.

Turkish officials say up to four of the posts are surrounded by the regime forces.

"We see that the regime is starting to encircle our observation posts. It is not possible for us to remain silent when confronted with this," Erdogan had said in comments published by the Hurriyet daily earlier on Saturday.

'SERIOUS ACCUSATIONS'

Ankara fears those fleeing the bombs will come to Turkey, already home to more than 3.6 million Syrians.

"We are not in a position to accept a million more people," Erdogan told Turkish journalists on his plane after a visit to Pakistan this week.

After Russia accused Turkey of failing to "neutralise terrorists" in Idlib, Erdogan dismissed this claim and said Turkish forces would fight against any terrorist.

He criticised Moscow's statements after his call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, but did not give details.

"The very next day, there are serious accusations in a statement. There was nothing like this in our call. What's going on?"

In the speech on Saturday evening, Erdogan again criticised Moscow over its support for the Syrian regime, and its effort only to "ensure the regime's survival."

But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier on Saturday insisted that Turkey-Russia relations "shouldn't" be affected by differences of opinion over Syria.

'NOT CONVINCED'

Relations between Turkey and the US have been strained over multiple issues including Syria but it appears the Americans are trying to capitalise on the tensions over Idlib between Ankara and Moscow.

US special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey visited Ankara earlier this week, and voiced Washington's support for Turkey's "legitimate" interests in Syria and in Idlib.

Although Jeffrey referred to Turkey's losses as "martyrs" this week, Erdogan said he was "not convinced" by such remarks, Hurriyet reported.

The Turkish presidency also said Erdogan and Trump discussed the situation in war-torn Libya and "underlined the importance of restoring peace and stability."

And the leaders agreed to restart negotiations to increase bilateral trade to US$100 billion (S$140 billion) a year, it added.