Rouhani: Israel, US will not achieve their objectives through rebels in Syria

At summit in Tehran with Putin and Erdogan on conflict, Iranian president says US must leave Syria immediately, while Turkish leader calls to prevent 'bloodbath' in Idlib

A handout picture taken and released on September 7, 2018, by the Turkish Presidential Press service shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) , Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) joining hands during a trilateral summit in Tehran. (AFP/Turkish Presidency Press Office)

Iran, Russia and Turkey were unable to overcome their differences at a Tehran summit on Friday as they held talks on an imminent offensive against the last rebel stronghold in Syria, amid warnings from the international community of a looming humanitarian disaster.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly disagreed with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at a press conference in the Iranian capital and warned of a “bloodbath” in Idlib province, where an assault by Syrian government forces is expected any day.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who hosted the meeting, also warned against a “scorched earth” policy, but said “fighting terrorism in Idlib is an unavoidable part of the mission of restoring peace and stability to Syria.”

Russia and Iran are major allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey backs opposition fighters, including some present in Idlib, who are seeking his ouster.

Rouhani also said the US and Israel have realized “they will not reach their objectives” by arming Syria’s rebels. On Thursday Foreign Policy claimed that Israel had armed Syrian rebels for years to advance its interests in the war-torn nation.

Rouhani demanded an immediate withdrawal by American forces in the country. The US has some 2,000 troops in Syria. He added that “we have to force the United States to leave,” without elaborating.

“The fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end,” Rouhani said, while adding that terrorism must “be uprooted in Syria, particularly in Idlib.”

Syrian protesters wave their national flag as they demonstrate against the regime and its ally Russia, in the rebel-held city of Idlib on September 7, 2018. (AFP/Zein Al Rifai)Putin insisted Damascus as “the legitimate Syrian government has a right and must eventually take under control all its national territory.”

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 that has eclipsed Western-backed Geneva negotiations led by the United Nations.

Erdogan called for a ceasefire to prevent any “bloodbath” in Idlib as Russian airplanes pounded rebel positions in the Syrian province.

“If we can ensure a ceasefire here, this will be one of the most important steps of the summit, it will seriously put civilians at ease,” Erdogan said. “We never want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath,” Erdogan said.

“Any attack launched or to be launched on Idlib will result in a disaster, massacre and a very big humanitarian tragedy.”

Iranian and Russian support for Assad has shored up the Damascus regime, allowing it to regain the upper hand in the seven-year civil war which has claimed some 350,000 lives since 2011.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Turkey’s counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Tehran on September 7, 2018 (AFP/Pool/Kirill Kudryavtsev)

Seized from government forces in 2015, Idlib and adjacent areas form the final major chunk of Syrian territory still under opposition control. It is home to some three million people — around half of them displaced from other parts of the country, according to the United Nations.

Putin said it was “unacceptable” to use civilians as a pretext to shield “terrorists” in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib.

He warned militants in Idlib planned “provocations,” possibly including chemical weapons. The Syrian government has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons in the long conflict.

Each of the three nations has its own interests in the yearslong war in Syria.

Iran wants to keep its foothold in the Mediterranean nation neighboring Israel and Lebanon. Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Assad, fears a flood of refugees fleeing a military offensive and destabilizing areas it now holds in Syria. And Russia wants to maintain its regional presence to fill the vacuum left by America’s long uncertainty about what it wants in the conflict.

Syrian rebel fighters prepare for an upcoming government forces offensive, in the countryside of the rebel-held northern Idlib province on September 3, 2018. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Northwestern Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaeda-linked militants.

For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria’s civil war after Syrian troops recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.

A bloody offensive that creates a massive wave of death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalizing, and could hurt Russia’s longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria’s postwar reconstruction.

For Turkey, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has sealed its borders to newcomers. It has also created zones of control in northern Syria and has several hundred troops deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib. A government assault creates a nightmare scenario of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, including militants, fleeing toward its border and destabilizing towns and cities in northern Syria under its control.

Syrian and Russian forces stand guard as civilians enter the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province, on August 20, 2018. (AFP/George Ourfalian)

Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation, said Friday his fighters were prepared for a battle that they expect will spark a major humanitarian crisis.

“The least the summit can do is to prevent this military war,” he said.

Early on Friday, a series of airstrikes struck villages in southwest Idlib, targeting insurgent posts and killing a fighter, said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Abdurrahman said suspected Russian warplanes carried out the attack.

Turkey also doesn’t want to see another Kurdish-controlled area rise along its border, as it already faces in northern Iraq.

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