Syrian protesters wave their national flag as they demonstrate against the regime and its ally Russia, in Idlib. Image Credit: AFP

Tehran: The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in a high stakes summit in Tehran on Friday, to discuss the future of Syria even as a bloody military operation looms in the last rebel-held area of the war-ravaged nation. Each leader laid out terms and issues on the battlefield most critical to their own concerns.

Turkey’s president appealed for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib, saying a government offensive in the northwestern province would be a national security threat to his country and unleash a humanitarian catastrophe.

His call appeared to be at odds with statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin who said the Syrian regime “has the right” to regain control over all Syrian territory, including Idlib.

The two leaders, along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke at a summit meeting in Tehran to discuss the future of Syria as a bloody military operation looms in the last rebel-held area of the war-ravaged nation.

“Idlib isn’t just important for Syria’s future, it is of importance for our national security and for the region’s future,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

“Any attack on Idlib would result in a catastrophe. Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience,” he added, saying “we don’t want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath.

“We must find a reasonable way out for Idlib,” he said.

Putin reiterated Russia’s stance that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime should be able to regain control of the entire country.

“We should think together over all aspects of this complicated issue,” Putin said, speaking of Idlib. “We should solve this issue together and (we should) all realise that the legitimate Syrian government has the right and eventually should be able to regain control of all of its territory.”

Reacting to Erdogan’s proposal for the joint communique to call for a ceasefire in Idlib, Putin said “a ceasefire would be good” but indicated that Moscow does not think it will hold.

He warned militants in Idlib planned “provocations,” possibly including chemical weapons. The Syrian regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons in the long conflict.

For his part, Rouhani demanded an immediate withdrawal by American forces in the country. The United States has some 2,000 troops in Syria. He added that “we have to force the US to leave,” without elaborating.

“The fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end,” Rouhani said, while adding that terrorism must “be uprooted in Syria, particularly in Idlib.”

Own agendas

Each of the three nations has its own interests in the years-long war in Syria.

Iran wants to keep its foothold in the Mediterranean nation neighbouring Israel and Lebanon. Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Al Assad, fears a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and destabilising areas it now holds in Syria. Russia wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by America’s long uncertainty about what it wants in the conflict.

Northwestern Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about three million people, nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including Al Qaida-linked militants.

For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian regime, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in the civil war after regime troops recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Al Assad.

A bloody offensive that leads to massive death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalising, and could hurt Russia’s longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria’s postwar reconstruction.

For Turkey, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has sealed its borders to newcomers. It has also created zones of control in northern Syria and has several hundred troops deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib. A government assault creates a nightmare scenario of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, including militants, fleeing toward its border and destabilising towns and cities in northern Syria, under Turkish control.

Naji Al Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation, said on Friday his fighters were prepared for a battle that they expect will spark a major humanitarian crisis.

“The least the summit can do is to prevent this military war,” he said.

Early on Friday, a series of air strikes struck villages in southwest Idlib, targeting insurgent posts and killing a fighter, said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Abdurrahman said suspected Russian warplanes carried out the attack.

Turkey also doesn’t want to see another Kurdish-controlled area rise along its border, as it already faces in northern Iraq.