MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin was set to meet Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday as international concern mounts over an expected Syrian government assault on the rebel-held province of Idlib.
The leaders of the two countries that are on opposite sides of the conflict but key global allies will discuss the situation in Idlib at Putin’s residence in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, the Kremlin said.
“The situation with Idlib is acute,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told RIA Novosti news agency on Monday ahead of the talks.
He conceded “there are certain differences in approaches” between the leaders.
Russia-backed forces of the Syrian regime have massed around Idlib province in recent weeks, sparking fears of an imminent air and ground attack to retake the last major opposition bastion.
The United Nations and non-governmental organisations have repeatedly warned that such an offensive would unleash a ‘bloodbath’ and “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib, which is home to three million people.
Turkey has intensified negotiations with Russia to avert a possible attack, repeatedly calling for a ceasefire.
Erdogan and Putin met previously on September 7 in Tehran for a three-way summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that saw the Russian and Turkish leaders openly disagree over how to deal with the rebel stronghold, which borders Turkey.
Russia and Iran are key allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Turkey however backs opposition fighters seeking the ouster of the Syrian leader, and has said a large-scale offensive against the rebels could trigger a mass exodus towards its border.
Russian and Syrian air strikes, artillery fire and barrel bombs have killed more than 30 civilians across the province in the past month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Bombardment has slowed over the past week, however, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that the Syrian regime is not preparing a major offensive against Idlib, adding that Moscow will do everything to protect civilians.
“What is being presented at the moment as the beginning of a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian forces is not a faithful representation of the facts,” Lavrov said Friday while visiting Germany.
“We are doing everything to ensure that the civilian population would not suffer,” he said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday said Turkey was ready to cooperate with anyone in the fight against terror groups in Syria, but criticised the Damascus regime for using the presence of militant groups to legitimise a possible operation in Idlib.
The Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, when the Assad regime waged a vicious crackdown on pro-democracy protests that evolved into a complex conflict involving militants and world powers.
It has killed an estimated 360,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.