ISTANBUL — The three foreign powers negotiating an end to Syria’s conflict failed Friday to agree to a cease fire that would have halted a decisive but potentially devastating battle for the country’s last rebel stronghold.
The Russian, Turkish and Iranian presidents convened in Tehran for a high-stakes and ultimately tense summit to discuss a deal for Idlib province, where Syrian government forces are threatening an all-out assault on a region housing some 3 million civilians.
The trilateral meeting was seen as a last attempt to prevent a bloody military campaign and underscored the deep divisions between the key foreign players in Syria, where Turkey has largely backed the opposition and Russia and Iran support the Syrian government.
In a discussion that was broadcast live, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged his counterparts to declare a truce and avoid a bloodbath. Russian leader Vladimir Putin rejected the cease fire, however, calling it “pointless” and declaring Syrian forces had a right to regain control of the country’s territory.
“We consider it unacceptable when the protection of the civilian population is used as a pretext for letting terrorists avoid a strike,” Putin said at a news conference Friday.
Russia has committed military personnel and assets to help Syrian forces quash the rebellion, and a victory in Idlib would seal the government’s triumph over the years-long uprising. The area, in Syria’s northwest, is controlled by a coalition of Islamist groups, including a former al-Qaeda affiliate.
But a battle would also be costly and could damage the Russia-Turkey relationship, analysts say. It was unclear Friday whether the three leaders had agreed to tamp down the violence or whether a military assault was imminent.
The leaders at the summit “will not have the same vision for Syria nor will they be on the same page regarding Idlib,” Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote ahead of the meeting Friday.
The negotiations marked the third time the three leaders have come together to negotiate the Syrian conflict, but they also follow weeks of tough rhetoric over the fate of Idlib and peace talks in general.
“There are many civilians in Idlib. We must be careful,” Erdogan said. “If we can make a cease-fire here today, I believe that this will be one of the most important steps of the summit.”
In a statement Friday, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said a further escalation of fighting in Idlib would “put the lives of more than 1 million children at imminent risk.”
“Thousands of children in Idlib have been forced to leave their homes multiple times and are now living in overcrowded makeshift shelters, with food, water and medicine in dangerously short supply,” said the Fund’s executive director, Henrietta Fore. “A fresh wave of violence could leave them trapped between fighting lines or caught in the crossfire, with potentially fatal consequences.”
Turkey is worried a direct confrontation with the militants could provoke a backlash of attacks on civilians in Turkish cities. Instead, Turkey has sought to separate some of Idlib’s more moderate opposition fighters from the hardcore Islamist militants who are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Those fighters belong to the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS.
“Turkey’s aim in Idlib has been to avoid a new, destabilizing conflict on its border. Ankara has argued for a strategy of containment, giving it more time and space to separate moderate opposition from transnational jihadists,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report this week.
But, the group said, “it is not obvious that even the elimination of HTS would satisfy Russia and head off a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib.”
Louisa Loveluck in Beirut and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.