Russian, Turkish Leaders Agree To Cease-Fire In Syria's Idlib Region

Turkey and Russia say they have agreed to a cease-fire for the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, as Ankara and Moscow sought to ease tensions over a flare-up in violence in Syria.

The agreement was announced on March 5 following about six hours of talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Moscow.

The sides said the agreement involves a cease-fire that must be enforced starting at midnight along the existing battle lines.

The deal also envisages setting up a 12-kilometer-wide security corridor along the M4 highway. The corridor is to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops, starting March 15.

The meeting came amid tensions in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel stronghold, in recent weeks as Turkey launched an offensive against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Russia.

A previous cease-fire deal for Idlib quickly fell apart, with Moscow and Ankara accusing each other of failing to adhere to that agreement.

After his meeting with Erdogan in Moscow, Putin expressed hope that the new agreement will “serve as a good basis for ending fighting in the Idlib de-escalation zone and ending the suffering of the civilian population.”

Erdogan said Turkey “reserves the right to retaliate with all its strength against any attack” by Syrian government forces.

Hours before the cease-fire was due to take effect, Turkey’s Defense Ministry announced that two Turkish soldiers died and three others were wounded after Syrian government forces opened fire in Idlib.

Turkish forces “immediately” retaliated against Syrian government targets, the statement said.

On February 27, Ankara reported the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in an air strike blamed on Syria. That led to retaliation and, on March 1, Turkey killed 19 Syrian soldiers in drone strikes and shot down two government warplanes.

Turkey and Russia — which back opposing sides in the conflict — have avoided direct confrontation so far, but the latest incidents have led many observers to express concerns that NATO member Turkey and Russia could become embroiled in an armed conflict.

Erdogan last week demanded that Europe support Turkish efforts in Syria while he prompted a new immigrant crisis by opening Turkey’s border with Greece to refugees and migrants.

Ankara wants Assad’s forces — which have launched an assault on Idlib to pull back behind lines agreed under a 2018 deal brokered with Moscow.

Erdogan in late February told Putin that Russia should stand aside in Syria to let Turkey deal with Syrian government forces alone.

But Moscow, which has backed Assad with crucial air support in the past five years, has said the Syrian government should be able to assert full control over the country, which has been torn apart by civil war since 2011.

Separately, Reuters said an analysis of flight data and its correspondents’ monitoring of shipping in the Bosphorus Strait in northwestern Turkey indicate that Russia started to increase naval and airborne deliveries to Syria on February 28 — a day after the Turkish soldiers were killed in the Idlib air strike.

Reuters said the Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Washington has expressed strong support for Turkey in the latest flare-up.

Following the February attack on Turkish soldiers, the United States said that “we stand by our NATO ally Turkey” and demanded that Syria and Russia end their “despicable” offensive in Idlib.

“We are looking at options on how we can best support Turkey in this crisis,” a State Department spokeswoman said at the time.

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