Iran’s Zarif makes surprise visit to Turkey ahead of Syria offensive
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Iran’s Zarif makes surprise visit to Turkey ahead of Syria offensive

Ankara watches warily as Assad allies Tehran and Moscow gear up for military action against major rebel bastion on its southern border

File: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Ankara, Friday, August 12, 2016. (Kayan Ozer/Presidential Press Service via AP)
File: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting in Ankara, Friday, August 12, 2016. (Kayan Ozer/Presidential Press Service via AP)

ANKARA, Turkey — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in Ankara on Wednesday for previously unannounced talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish presidency said.

Zarif went into the talks at the headquarters of Erdogan’s ruling party as expectations grew that the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s ally, would launch a major offensive against rebels in the Idlib province in the country’s northwest, along the Turkish border.

Turkey has been keeping a wary eye on the preparations for the offensive.

Turkey, a Sunni nation, has throughout the seven-year civil war in Syria supported Sunni rebels seeking to oust Assad but has put differences aside to form a three-way alliance with Tehran and Moscow.

Erdogan and his counterparts Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are due to meet for a third summit on Syria in Iran on September 7, Turkish reports have said.

But analysts say that Idlib, which is largely controlled by rebel groups, could test the alliance with Turkey, as Ankara warns a military solution could lead to catastrophe and a new influx of refugees across its borders.

Turkey has 12 observation posts staffed by its military inside Idlib tasked with monitoring a “de-escalation zone” and media reports have said it has sent concrete blocks over the border to reinforce them in case of an offensive.

But analysts also say that Turkey is keen to preserve the three-way alliance and may be prepared to support a more limited offensive against the most extreme jihadist factions in Idlib.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday called on the West not to stand in the way of an “anti-terror operation” in Syria’s Idlib.

Lavrov also said that there is “full political understanding” between Russia and Turkey and said it was necessary to “disassociate the so-called moderate opposition from terrorists.”

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