Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday called on Russia and Iran to halt a looming ‘humanitarian disaster’ in Idlib, saying Syrians there could not be left to the mercy of President Bashar al-Assad.
Erdogan has called for a ceasefire in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, as an assault by Syrian government forces is expected any day.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Erdogan said the West had an ‘obligation to stop the next bloodshed’ but that regime allies Moscow and Tehran were ‘likewise responsible for stopping this humanitarian disaster’.
The comments came four days after the Turkish president met his Russian and Iranian counterparts for a summit in Tehran, where Erdogan sought to avert a bloody assault in Idlib.
Analysts said Erdogan failed at the summit to achieve his aim, and his comments appear to indicate growing frustration in Turkey that Iran and Russia are not reining in Assad.
While Turkey has been one of the main supporters of Syrians rebels and called for Assad's ouster, Ankara has until now worked closely with Assad's allies Moscow and Tehran to find a political solution to the conflict.
The UN has warned a large-scale military operation could create ‘the worst humanitarian catastrophe’ of this century in Idlib, home to some three million people -- around half of them displaced from other parts of the country.
‘The consequences of inaction are immense. We cannot leave the Syrian people to the mercy of Bashar Assad,’ Erdogan wrote.
The Turkish leader also criticised Assad's bid to legitimise the fight in Idlib as a counter-terrorism operation.
‘Innocent people must not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism,’ he wrote.
Idlib's most powerful armed faction is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, which Ankara officially designated a ‘terrorist’ group last month.
Erdogan acknowledged that groups like HTS ‘remain active in this area’ but insisted that such fighters ‘account for a fraction of Idlib's population.’
He called for a ‘comprehensive international counter-terrorism operation’ and said that the assistance of pro-Ankara moderate rebels will be ‘crucial’ in Idlib.
Turkey has already taken in over three million refugees from Syria and Ankara fears any large offensive will lead a new refugee influx of up to two million from Idlib.
The civil war has claimed some 350,000 lives since 2011.