File photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) during their joint news conference following Russian-Turkish talks in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 22, 2019. (Reuters)
Russian officials will arrive in Turkey on Saturday for talks aimed at stopping the Syrian government's offensive in Syria's northwestern Idlib region and halt a humanitarian catastrophe there, Turkey's foreign minister said on Friday.
Russia-backed Syrian forces have pressed to capture Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the country, displacing more than half a million people since early December. Their shelling on Monday killed eight Turkish personnel, prompting a retaliation.
The escalation in Syria's nearly nine-year-old war disrupted fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow and raised concern over future collaboration given they support opposing sides.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan threatened this week to drive back the Syrian forces in Idlib unless they withdraw from the region by the end of the month.
Speaking at a news conference in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu repeated Turkey would do whatever is necessary to stop a humanitarian tragedy in Idlib, where on Thursday Russian-led Syrian forces entered the strategic town of Saraqeb.
"A delegation from Russia will arrive in Turkey. We will hold talks. Our goal is to stop the (Syrian) regime's aggression and move the political process forward," Cavusoglu said, adding the Russians would arrive on Saturday.
Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, fears another influx towards its border. While Erdogan has said the latest assault has displaced close to 1 million people, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to Geneva said on Friday that 586,000 were displaced.
Ankara has backed rebels looking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Moscow and Tehran have supported Assad's forces. The three countries have also collaborated on a political solution to the conflict.
After Monday's attack, Turkey and Russia cancelled a regular joint military patrol in northern Syria. A Turkish security source said the patrol was postponed over "harsh weather".
"There is coordination at all times," the source told journalists in Ankara. "The patrol was not halted."
Turkey established a dozen military observation posts in the Idlib region positioned around a "de-escalation zone" agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2018.
The latest Syrian push has led to three posts falling in areas under Syrian government control, the security source said, adding all such posts are equipped with enough personnel and equipment to defend themselves.
"There are no issues (at the surrounded posts), deployment of reinforcements are made regularly and without any problems," he said. Asked if any Turkish troops were pulled from the posts after the advances by Assad's forces, the official said this was "absolutely out of the question" and the posts would remain.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said that Turkish troops were establishing a new military post east of Idlib city, home to more than one million people, many already displaced from other parts of Syria.
Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Thursday that Ankara had sent about 20 tanks to Hatay, along the Syrian border, to be deployed to the observation posts under heavy security. On Friday it said commandoes and ammunition were sent to Idlib with a 150-vehicle convoy.
The source said the reinforcements, aimed at halting clashes and protecting Turkish personnel there, would continue. "We have no problems there (Saraqeb). Our forces are ready to retaliate against any attack in the harshest way," the source said.