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Russia says no Syria assault as Putin, Erdogan agree Idlib plan

Ankara to increase troop numbers in Cyprus – Qatari leader gifts luxury plane to Turkey

SOCHI, Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in this Black Sea resort yesterday. – AFP

SOCHI, Russia: Moscow said yesterday there would be no assault on Syria’s Idlib as the leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed to create a demilitarized zone around the Syrian rebel-held province. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who are on opposite sides in the deadly seven-year conflict in Syria – met for over four hours in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi to decide the fate of Idlib, home to three million people. “We will prevent a humanitarian tragedy which could happen as a result of military action,” Erdogan said after the talks.

Putin said the two leaders agreed to create a 15-20 kilometer-wide demilitarized zone along the line of contact between rebels and regime troops by Oct 15. This would entail a “withdrawal of all radical fighters” from Idlib including the Al-Nusra Front, he added. Putin and Erdogan also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone”, including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers belonging to all armed groups, the Russian leader added.

The demilitarized zone will be secured with the help of “mobile patrol groups of Turkish contingents and contingents of Russian military police”, Putin said. By the end of the year, transportation routes between the key port of Latakia and Aleppo as well as Latakia and the major city of Hama must be restored, he added. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the agreement between Putin and Erdogan meant that no military action would be taken against Idlib, Russian news agencies reported.

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 organizations have repeatedly warned that such an offensive would unleash a “bloodbath” and “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib.

Turkey has repeatedly called for a ceasefire to avert a possible attack. Erdogan and Putin met previously on Sept 7 in Tehran for a three-way summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. At that summit the Russian and Turkish leaders openly disagreed over how to deal with the rebel stronghold, which borders Turkey. Turkey’s military has reportedly sent reinforcements to Idlib in recent weeks. Tanks and other hardware, with a convoy of 50 military vehicles, were sent over the border Sunday, according to the Hurriyet daily.

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. It 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 bomb attacks have killed more than 30 civilians across the province in the past month, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Meanwhile, Erdogan vowed that Ankara will increase rather than reduce its troops numbers in Cyprus, a move that could further set back attempts to reunify the divided Mediterranean island. In comments published in Turkish media yesterday, Erdogan added that Turkey had no need for a naval base on Cyprus as mooted in some reports but could establish such a facility if it was necessary from a “psychological” point of view.

“No, we are not going to reduce the numbers of our troops. We will increase them, we are not going to decrease them,” he told Turkish reporters travelling back with him from a trip to Azerbaijan. He expressed impatience over the Cyprus issue, saying “this business would have been solved” if the Greek Cypriots had backed unification in an April 2004 referendum on a plan put forward by the late former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. While Turkish Cypriots were overwhelmingly in favor of the plan, Greek Cypriots voted against.

“Henceforth we will implement the formula that we have declared for ourselves,” said Erdogan, without elaborating. Cyprus has been divided since the 1974 Turkish invasion which occupied the northern third of the island in response to a Greek military junta-sponsored coup. Turkey is believed to maintain around 35,000 troops in northern Cyprus, although the military does not give official figures.

The withdrawal – or drastic reduction – of Turkey’s military presence is seen as key to any reunification plan being acceptable to the Greek Cypriot side. Some conservative Turkish media have also reported in recent weeks that Turkey was planning to open a naval base on Cyprus, a move that would likely deal a terminal blow to any reunification hopes. But Erdogan said “we have no need to build a base there”, noting that unlike Greece, Turkey was just “minutes away” from the coast of Cyprus.
But he appeared to leave the door open to such a move as a way of making a political statement. “This issue just has a psychological dimension. In this respect, if we felt the need, we could establish a base. Our presence there is important,” Erdogan said. There were high hopes at the beginning of 2017 that UN-backed talks could clinch a breakthrough in the long-running stalemate on reuniting the island. But the deadlock has not been broken and analysts say rapid progress is unlikely for the moment as Erdogan reaches out to the nationalist electorate in Turkey.

Separately, Erdogan said the amir of Qatar gave a luxury jumbo jet as a “gift” to Turkey, rejecting opposition claims the plane had been bought in a costly purchase for the presidency. In comments published yesteray, Erdogan said Turkey had shown interest in buying the on-sale Boeing 747-8 plane – reportedly worth around $400 million – but Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani insisted on offering the plane as a gift.

“We were interested. When the Qatar Amir was informed of this he gave it as a gift, saying ‘I won’t take money from Turkey. I will give this plane as a gift’.” The Turkish president insisted that while the jet would be used for his trips, “the plane is not mine, it is the Turkish Republic’s”, in comments to reporters while returning from Azerbaijan. Erdogan said that once the paintwork was finished he hoped to use the plane for travel. Gulf media have said that the giant plane, which was part of Tamim’s personal fleet, is equipped for only 76 passengers and has lounges and boardrooms.

His remarks came after criticism last week by lawmakers from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), who claimed Erdogan had bought the plane. CHP MP Gamze Tascier said on Twitter that a sales official from a company based in Switzerland confirmed the sale of a Boeing 747-8 jet. “The company says it was sold, supporters say it was a gift,” she said on Thursday.

After Erdogan’s latest remarks, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu hit back at Erdogan and questioned his “honor” over the move to accept such a gift. “How can it not cause you discomfort?” Kilicdaroglu said yesteraday. The CHP and Erdogan’s critics have repeatedly accused the Turkish strongman of having a penchant for luxury, notably in the vast new Ankara presidential palace that opened in 2014. Erdogan however has hit back by saying that such facilities are national assets worthy of a state of Turkey’s importance.

The plane is also a new symbol of the close relationship between Doha and Ankara that has seen both sides help the other in times of trouble. Doha promised to make a $15 billion direct investment in Turkey during the Washington-Ankara spat last month which saw the lira’s value fall drastically against the dollar. Ankara, one of the top exporters to the emirate, also provided unstinting support to Doha after Saudi Arabia and its allies imposed an embargo from 2017. – Agencies

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