Russian, Turkish presidents agree to working group on northwest Syria - Turkish foreign minister

The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have agreed to bring together a working group as soon as possible to deal with the conflict in northwest Syria, Reuters reported on Wednesday.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s words on Wednesday came after fighting flared up between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib.

A deal signed by Turkey and Russia last year aimed to deescalate the conflict in Idlib, the last opposition-controlled province, by creating a buffer zone guaranteed by Ankara.

But the situation has been complicated by the victories of Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group that includes remnants of groups tied to al Qaeda.

Russia specified that Turkey should clear Idlib of “extremists” as part of last September’s deal, but since it was signed Tahrir al-Sham has outfought other rebel groups to become the dominant power in Idlib and taken control of areas in neighbouring provinces.

After a series of warnings to Turkey over the “volatile” situation in Idlib, Russia reportedly began bombarding the province in April, but intensified its bombardment in the beginning of May.

Çavuşoğlu said Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran, had “responsibilities” in Idlib during a statement calling for an immediate end to attacks.

However, Turkey’s strongest statements have been aimed at Assad’s regime, which Ankara has vehemently opposed since the start of fighting in 2011. Erdoğan reportedly accused Assad of tryıng to “sabotage” Turkish-Russian cooperation in Idlib during a phone conversation with Putin this week.

Erdoğan said the ceasefire violations were designed to “harm the spirit of Astana talks”, referring to the negotiations backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran to bring the Syrian conflict to an end.

Çavuşoğlu added on Wednesday that the attacks on Idlib by Assad’s forces were “damaging prospects of forming a U.N.-sponsored committee to draft a new Syrian constitution”, Reuters reported.