Idlib 'Safe Zone,' Refugees Top Agenda as Iran, Russia, Turkey Leaders Meet Over Syria Conflict

Putin, Erdogan and Rohani praise their cooperation on issues like embattled Idlib, though Russia and Iran back Assad while Turkey backs rebel groups

Iranian President Hassan Rohani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, September 16, 2019.
Pavel Golovkin,AP

The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria, with the aim of halting fighting in the northwestern Idlib province and finding a lasting political solution to the country's civil war, now in its ninth year. 

Topping the agenda of the meeting was the volatile situation in Idlib — the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. A cease-fire went into effect there at the end of August, following a wide four-month offensive by government forces.

The cease-fire has been holding despite some violations that left six people dead last week. A major conflict in Idlib has raised the possibility of a mass refugee flow to Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

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Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, some already displaced from other parts of the war-torn country, have moved toward Turkey's border to flee Syrian airstrikes, backed by Russia. Idlib is dominated by the al-Qaida-linked group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.  

"We will address first and foremost the situation on the field in Idlib, the developments east of the Euphrates, the stage reached in the political process and the issue of Syrian refugees," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during his opening remarks.

Erdogan hailed the three countries' cooperation on finding a "lasting political solution" and Russian President Vladimir Putin said their joint efforts had helped decrease violence in Syria. But both Putin and Iran's Hassan Rohani expressed concern over Idlib, warning that it should not be a haven for "terrorists."

Speaking after bilateral talks with Erdogan and Putin and ahead of three-way talks, Rohani said the groundwork for a return to stability in Syria needed to be established.

"Diplomacy and not (military) confrontation can secure peace in Syria," Rohani said, adding that the United States needed to withdraw its troops from northeastern Syria immediately.

In an abrupt decision against the advice of his top aides and commanders, U.S. President Donald Trump said last year he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. The move was welcomed by Turkey and Iran, but it has yet to be fully implemented.

"The immediate withdrawal of American troops is necessary for establishing peace in Syria," Rohani said.

Monday's talks are the fifth trilateral meeting among countries that stand on opposing sides of the conflict. Russia and Iran are key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad while Turkey backs Syrian rebels seeking to oust him.

A major offensive in Idlib was averted last September when Erdogan and Putin agreed in the Russian resort town of Sochi to set up a demilitarized zone in Idlib and open two major highways. Those plans, as well as a Turkish pledge to tame armed groups in Idlib, have largely failed. 

Erdogan has warned that Turkey could "open its gates" and allow Syrians already living in his country to flood Western countries if Turkey is left to shoulder the refugee burden alone.

Despite divergent interests in Syria, Erdogan and Putin have been building closer ties, having met seven times in 2019 alone. Russia has delivered two batteries of the S-400 surface to air missile systems to Turkey and the two countries are cooperating on energy deals. 

The three leaders would also take up Turkish and American plans for a so-called "safe zone" in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border east of the Euphrates River. This safe zone is an attempt to meet Turkish demands to push away from the border U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara considers terrorists, alleging they have ties to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey. 

Ankara is also lobbying for a plan to resettle displaced Syrians in Turkey-controlled zones across northern Syria. Rohani called for the withdrawal of American troops and Syria's territorial integrity.

Reuters contributed to this report.