MOSCOW – The leaders of Russia and Turkey said on Wednesday they would boost communication on the topic of Idlib amid an escalation in clashes between the Moscow-backed Assad regime and Turkish forces and its allies.
According to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed the need to ensure the continued implementation of the bilateral Sochi memorandum in Idlib, which designated the northwestern Syrian region as a de-escalation zone under the auspices of both parties.
“Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued the discussion regarding various aspects of the Syrian peace process, primarily in the context of the recent aggravation in the Idlib de-escalation zone,” the Kremlin statement said.
“They also noted the importance of the full implementation of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements, including the Sochi Memorandum of September 17, 2018.
“Additional contacts between the relevant government agencies were planned for these purposes.”
Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad have been chipping away at the last major opposition-held territory in the country in recent weeks, a campaign that has led to confrontations with Turkey-backed militias.
The regime managed to take control of a major highway connecting Damascus with the country’s second city, Aleppo, for the first time since 2012.
Erdogan on Wednesday warned Damascus that Turkish forces would strike regime forces beyond Idlib if Turkish troops involved in a military incursion in the region came under attack.
On Monday, Turkish forces attacked Syrian troops in retaliation for an assault that killed five Turkish soldiers, according to Ankara.
“From today, if there is another attack on our soldiers, we will attack the regime everywhere,” the Islamist president said in a televised address. He said the Turkish army would strike beyond its observation posts in Idlib “without hesitating.”
Such military actions would breach the Sochi deal.
The added rhetorical fervor comes amid a noted escalation in violent clashes that have killed 14 Turkish soldiers in the last week.
Erdogan accused Assad’s backers Russia and Iran of carrying out “massacres in Idlib.”
On Tuesday, the Syrian army said it was willing to “respond to attacks by the Turkish occupation forces,” according to the statement issued by state-run news agency SANA.
Turkey offers its military backing and guidance to a handful of rebel groups in the region.
But the majority of the province is under the control of the hardline Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaida linked organization that is a proscribed terror cell in the eyes of Syria, Russia and Turkey.
Armed opposition militants on Tuesday managed to shoot down a Syrian government helicopter over Idlib.
Bordering the Turkish province of Hatay to the northwest, Idlib is the last major bastion of the anti-Assad armed opposition in Syria.