MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey’s foreign minister said on Friday it would be disastrous to seek a military solution in the northern Syrian region of Idlib, a rebel-held enclave which the Syrian government says it aims to recapture.
Idlib is a refuge for civilians and rebels displaced from other areas of Syria as well as for powerful jihadist forces. It has been hit by a wave of air strikes and shelling this month in a possible prelude to a full-scale government offensive.
Turkey has backed some rebel groups in the region and set up a dozen military observation posts. It is trying to avert an attack by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Moscow.
“A military solution here would be a disaster, not just for the Idlib region, but a disaster in terms of Syria’s future,” Mevlut Cavusoglu told a news conference in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The two ministers met in Ankara 10 days ago and Cavusoglu then gave a similar message, saying it would be a “massacre” to bomb Idlib, even though there are militants there.
“Where will some 3.5 million civilians go to?” Cavusoglu said on Friday.
“It is important for all of us to neutralise these radical groups,” he said. “But we have to distinguish the civilians from the terrorist groups.”
Idlib is controlled by an array of insurgent groups, with Sunni Muslim jihadists believed to be the dominant force there.
Lavrov told the same news conference that tens of thousands of militants were trying to obstruct Turkey’s efforts to separate them from more moderate forces.
He said further talks on Idlib would take place in Moscow later on Friday involving the two countries’ defence ministers and intelligence services.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to hold talks with Cavusoglu later on Friday.
(Reporting by Daren Butler in Turkey and Andrey Ostroukh and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Ros Russell)