The Russian presidential envoy to Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentyev, said on Tuesday the Turkish military should withdraw from northern Syria between parts of Azaz and Jarabulus after they complete operations, according to Russian news outlet Sputnik’s Turkish service.
“We will be insistent on the subject of withdrawal of Turkish soldiers when conditions are safe for civilians to live in these areas,” Lavrentyev said, adding that they had proposed a plan to Ankara for returning Syrian refugees in Turkey to their homeland.
Lavrentyev dismissed what he called “rumors” of an imminent offensive in İdlib province, but he said that between 300 and 500 people have left the provincial capital through corridors maintained by the Russian military, The Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
İdlib province is home to more than 3 million people, nearly half of them displaced from other parts of Syria, including armed groups that refused to accept the restoration of government authority after military offensives and capitulation deals.
“There is not talk and cannot be any talk of any operation, any large-scale offensive in İdlib,” Lavrentyev said, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. “The only issue we raise, and raise it quite firmly, is that it is necessary to stop the activity of terrorist groups” in the province.
Syria’s envoy to the United Nations, on the other hand, blasted Turkey over its growing influence in the northern part of his country, calling it an “occupation” and vowing to “expel” Turkish troops.
Turkey, a main backer of Syria’s opposition, has sent troops into northern Syria to battle the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Kurdish militants. It has also deployed troops in the opposition stronghold of Idlib province as part of a de-escalation agreement with Iran and Russia, both of which are close allies of the Syrian government.
Syrian Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari on Tuesday condemned the presence of the Turkish troops, saying the government remains determined to regain control over all of Syria and will not tolerate Turkey’s long-term presence.
“We will expel them,” he said of the Turkish troops.
Ja’afari spoke during the 10th round of talks hosted by Russia in Sochi, which involved Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian government and representatives of the opposition.
His comments came amid speculation that the government would launch a major offensive in Idlib province after it drove rebels out of areas around Damascus and southwestern Syria.
Ja’afari said the de-escalation agreement “tests” whether Turkey is serious about fighting “terrorist groups.” President Bashar Assad’s government refers to all opposition fighters as terrorists.
Ja’afari said Syria reserves the right to retake İdlib province militarily if reconciliation talks fail. But the province is home to some of the most hardline opposition groups, including al-Qaeda-linked militants who have been excluded from all peace efforts.
Turkey said in a statement that the truce in İdlib province is a “main component” of its agreements with Russia and Iran, saying “its functionality must be preserved.”