The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran failed on Friday to agree on a ceasefire on the northwestern Syrian region of Idlib, perhaps the final chance to avoid what activists warn will be a humanitarian disaster.
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, meeting in Tehran for a summit of key foreign players in Syria’s war, agreed in a final statement that there could be no military solution to the conflict and it could only end through a negotiated political process.
But as Syrian regime and Russian warplanes mounted air strikes in Idlib on Friday morning in a possible prelude to a full-scale offensive on the opposition stronghold, Putin and Rouhani pushed back against Erdogan’s call for a truce.
"Idlib isn't just important for Syria's future, it is of importance for our national security and for the future of the region," Erdogan said. "Any attack on Idlib would result in a catastrophe. Any fight against terrorists requires methods based on time and patience."
"We don't want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath," he added.
Putin said a ceasefire would be pointless as it would not involve extremist groups it deems terrorists. Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.
In the final statement, the three leaders agreed on the need to eliminate ISIS, the Nusra Front, and other extremist groups. But there were other armed opposition groups who could join any ceasefire agreement, they said.
The communique also called on the United Nations and the international community to step up humanitarian aid to Syria and help in restoring basic infrastructure assets.
Efforts must be made to protect and to create conditions for the safe return of refugees, it added.
The Idlib province and surrounding areas are home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes an estimated 10,000 fighters, including the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group.
The Syrian regime was not directly represented at the summit, nor were the United States and other Western powers.
America's ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has warned any military offensive in Idlib "would be a reckless escalation."
"There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict," Haley said in a statement Wednesday. "Assad's brutal regime — backed by Russia and Iran — cannot continue to attack and terrorize Syria's citizens."