ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s foreign minister said on Tuesday he hoped his country and Russia could find a solution over the northern Syrian region of Idlib, a rebel-held enclave which the Syrian government says it aims to recapture.
The Idlib region, a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria as well as powerful jihadist forces, was hit by a wave of air strikes and shelling last week, in a possible prelude to a full-scale government offensive.
Turkey, which has backed some rebel groups in the region and set up a dozen military observation posts, is trying to avert an attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it was important to distinguish between “terrorists”, rebel fighters and up to three million civilians in Idlib.
“We need to determine these terrorist (groups) and eliminate them with intelligence and military forces,” he said in Ankara ahead of talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, whose country has backed Assad militarily.
“It would be a massacre to bomb Idlib, civilians, hospitals, schools just because there are terrorists.”
Idlib is controlled by an array of insurgent groups, with Sunni Muslim jihadists believed to be the dominant force there.
“We need to differentiate between moderate rebels and radicals. The local people and the moderate rebels are very disturbed by these terrorists so we need to fight against them all together,” Cavusoglu said.
Last week U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said that Turkey, Russia and Iran had all agreed to “do their utmost to avoid” a battle in Idlib.
The Syrian army dropped leaflets over Idlib province on Thursday, urging people to agree to a return of state rule, telling them the seven year war was nearing its end.
Lavrov, speaking at a news conference with Cavusoglu, also said Moscow was surprised at what he said was Western opposition to refugee returns to Syria.
“A huge (portion) of Syria has been freed of terrorists. It’s time to rebuild infrastructure, all living necessities for refugees from Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and from Europe to start returning to their home,” he said.
Russia’s foreign ministry said on Monday a four-way Syria summit “is planned in the upcoming future”, with the leaders of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany attending.
Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Daren Butler in Istanbul and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans, Richard Balmforth.