Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the Syrian government of “seeking to sabotage” Ankara’s relationship with Moscow through its latest offensive in the northwest of the war-torn country.
Clashes in Idlib province, the last rebel-held stronghold, have killed at least 42 fighters in 24 hours, a United Kingdom-based war monitor said on Monday, and the government bombardment on the region has devastated health services.
On Monday, rebels said they mounted a counterattack against government forces in northwest Syria.
Idlib’s nearly three million residents are supposed to be protected by a so-called “de-militarised” buffer zone through a deal signed last September by Russia and Turkey that was meant to avert a fully-fledged assault on Idlib.
During a phone call late on Monday, Erdogan told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that the offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s forces “sought to sabotage Turkish-Russian cooperation”, according to a Twitter post by Fahrettin Altun, communications director at the Turkish presidency.
Russia and Turkey are on opposing sides of the conflict, with Moscow strongly supporting Assad’s militarily since 2015, while Ankara supported Syrian rebels in the war since it began in 2011.
Both have worked closely, along with Iran – Assad’s ally – to find a political solution to the conflict.
Erdogan lamented that “the regime’s ceasefire violations targeting the Idlib de-escalation zone over the last two weeks have reached an alarming dimension”.
He said it was impossible to explain it as a counterterror effort given the number of casualties and damage to health services.
The biggest group in control of much of Idlib is Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is independent of the Turkish-backed umbrella of opposition factions in the region.
HTS has been designated a “terrorist” group by Russia, and its presence has been used as a justification for intensified attacks despite the de-escalation agreement.
The Turkish leader also warned that the attacks risked undermining the fate of the political process in Syria.
On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar also spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu to discuss “measures to de-escalate tensions” in Idlib, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
The latest government-led offensive that began on April 28 has displaced more than 150,000 people, the United Nations said, the biggest escalation in the war since last summer.
Last week, Syrian government forces captured the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northwest Syria. They also launched ground operations against the southern flank of the rebel zone consisting of Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces.
The UN has called for all sides to abide by the deal signed in September 2018 with the objective of avoiding a humanitarian disaster and preventing an influx of refugees from entering bordering Turkey.
Since the start of the conflict in Syria, more than 400,000 people have been killed, and millions have been displaced.