EU appeals to ‘Astana guarantors’ to avoid Idlib catastrophe

Iranian President Hassan Rouhan (C), Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a press conference after their meeting in Tehran, Iran 7 September 2018. [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

Commenting on the decision by Russia and Turkey to create a “demilitarised” zone in a rebel-held Syrian region, the EU called on Tuesday (18 September) on the “Astana guarantors”, Russia, Turkey and Iran, to respect civilians as a matter of priority.

The three countries are the major players in the Syrian peace process hosted by Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Astana meeting on Syria takes place without Western oversight

Kazakhstan and Russia urged the US on Friday (16 March) to engage “in a constructive dialogue” in the context of the unfolding tragedy in Syria. But no US or Western diplomats were present at the eight edition of the Syria talks, held in the framework of the so-called Astana process.

Russian and Turkish troops are to enforce a new demilitarised zone, under the Astana process, in Syria’s Idlib region, from which “radical” rebels will be required to withdraw by mid-October, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after meeting his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday.

Russia, the biggest outside backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebels, has been preparing for an offensive on the city of Idlib, which is controlled by rebels and now home to about 3 million people.

Moscow believes it is up to Turkey to separate Islamist militants from the moderate opposition, and considers Idlib “a sort of a zone of responsibility of Turkey”.

Russia says Turkey has key job of separating out militants in Syria's Idlib

Russia hopes for a peaceful resolution of the situation in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib but believes it is up to Turkey to separate Islamist militants from the moderate opposition, Russia’s Syria envoy said on Tuesday (11 September).

Putin told a joint news conference with Erdoğan in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi: “We agreed that by 15 October (we will) create along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops a demilitarised zone of a depth of 15-20 km, with the withdrawal from there of radically-minded rebels, including al-Nusra.”

“By 10 October, at the suggestion of the Turkish president, (we agreed) on the withdrawal from that zone of the heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars of all opposition groups,” Putin said, with Erdoğan standing alongside him.

“The demilitarised zone will be monitored by mobile patrol groups of Turkish units and units of Russian military police.”

Neither Putin not Erdoğan explained how they planned to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.

But after Putin’s talks with Erdoğan, who has opposed a military operation against the rebels in Idlib, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters no offensive would take place now.

Erdoğan, who had feared another cross-border exodus of Syrian refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey, said the deal would allow opposition supporters to stay where they were, and avert a humanitarian crisis.

Asked to comment on yesterday’s meeting in Sochi, Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson to EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, reminded that the EU has repeatedly said the military offensive in Idlib would put at risk the lives of approximately 3 million people living in the region, and should be avoided.

“Idlib is the last de-escalation zone remaining in Syria, and the Astana guarantors have committed to safeguard it, and in this context we have called repeatedly the Astana guarantors to follow through their commitment and to respect civilians in a matter of priority”, Kocijancic said.

She added the EU expects that the agreement reached by the Russian and Turkish presidents will guarantee the protection of civilian lives and infrastructure, as well as guarantee the unhindered and sustainable humanitarian access.

Turkey, which already hosts about 3.5 million Syrian refugees, built a four-metre wall along the frontier with Idlib in late 2016 to prevent any attacks against Turkey and stop the flow of new arrivals.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful group is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front – an al Qaeda affiliate until 2016.

Other Islamists and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”.

Putin this month publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdoğan for a ceasefire in Idlib when the two met with Iran’s president for a three-way summit in Tehran.

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