The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey have been unable to find common ground at a high-stakes summit on the fate of Syria’s last rebel stronghold, where the Syrian government is threatening a large-scale military offensive.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Friday hosted his Russian and Turkish counterparts – Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan – amid growing international warnings over a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, a province hosting more than three million people, half of whom are internally displaced.
Iran and Russia are major allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey backs certain rebel groups, including some in Idlib, who are seeking his removal.
At the three-way summit in Iran’s capital, Tehran, Erdogan warned of a “bloodbath” in the event of an all-out assault on the northwestern province and called for a ceasefire.
“If we can announce a ceasefire today here, I believe this will be one of the most important steps of this summit,” the Turkish president said.
“An attack on Idlib will result in disaster, massacre and a very big humanitarian tragedy,” added Erdogan, whose country has already taken in more than three million Syrian refugees and fears a new influx that could overwhelm its now-closed southern border with Idlib.
But his proposal for a ceasefire was rejected by Putin, whose decision three years ago to intervene in Syria’s war tilted the odds in al-Assad’s favour.
In rejecting the ceasefire and stating what he expected the imminent offensive to accomplish, Putin said: “We consider it unacceptable when, under the pretext of protecting the civilian population, they want to withdraw terrorists from being under attack, as well as inflict damage on Syrian government troops”.
Reporting from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi said the summit laid bare the countries’ divergence “on what to do next with regards to Idlib … [and] on what promises to be the final large-scale battle in Syria and now, a seemingly inevitable battle for Idlib”.
The statement also called for the creation of safe conditions so those displaced by the seven-year conflict can return.
It added that the three countries had discussed “the situation in (the) Idlib de-escalation area and decided to address it in line with … the spirit of cooperation that characterised the Astana format”.
The three countries are guarantors of the Astana process, a track of talks on Syria’s civil war launched after Russia’s game-changing 2015 military intervention, which led to the creation of de-escalation zones throughout the country.
The talks in Tehran were held as Russian and Syrian fighter jets continued bombing various areas of southern Idlib province, activists said on Friday.
At least four people were killed and seven wounded in the air raids, local activists and rescue workers said.
Meanwhile Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for Syria reiterated on Friday that there were “all the ingredients for a perfect storm” in Idlib, as he called for the establishment of UN-monitored evacuation corridors for civilians to voluntarily leave the war zone.
“People should be granted safe passage to places of their own choosing if they want to leave temporarily. We must allow the opening of a sufficient number of protected voluntary evacuation routes for civilians in any direction,” he told the Security Council.
De Mistura proposed that a deadline be set for all fighters – in particular, the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front) – to move away from populated areas and that no military attacks be launched during the pullback.
“This would apply in particular for al-Nusra, who should be notified by the guarantors, in particular Turkey, which still has the capacity to send messages,” he said.
Separately, eight aid agencies have urged world leaders to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Idlib, calling for a diplomatic solution that can protect civilians and aid workers while allowing humanitarian groups to access the overcrowded province and surrounding areas.
The agencies, including CARE, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee, said the “most vulnerable” are likely to pay the heaviest price in case of an offensive.