REVISED HEADLINE, DECK; UPDATES WITH REMARKS OF ERDOGAN ON LIBYA, IDLIB AND PATRIOTS; REVISED THROUGHOUT
By Davut Demircan and Burak Dag
ANKARA (AA) - Turkey's president is set to discuss with his Russian counterpart developments in a border region of Syria battered by the Assad regime and its allies in a Friday evening phone call, said the president.
Speaking to reporters after weekly Friday prayers in Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the call with Russia's Vladimir Putin would take place at 6.00 p.m. local time (1500GMT) and would focus on the embattled province of Idlib, northwestern Syria.
French President Emmanuel Merkel and German Chancellor Angela Macron suggested holding a quartet summit on March 5 in Istanbul to discuss Idlib, said Erdogan, adding that Putin had yet to accept the proposal.
In retaliation for Assad regime attacks martyring Turkish soldiers, he said that Turkish and moderate opposition groups had destroyed 12 tanks, three armored vehicles, 14 howitzers and two pickup trucks in Idlib, where fighting continues with forces loyal to the Assad regime, and its Russian and Iranian allies.
He added that some 150 regime forces had been neutralized.
“Unless the regime stops the persecution of the people of Idlib at this point, it is not possible to withdraw from there. We can only reach a truce this way. First, the cruelty will stop here,” Erdogan said.
Turkish forces are in the region as part of a cease-fire deal reached in September 2018 which has been often violated.
On the one million civilians fleeing attacks by Assad and his allies heading to the border with Turkey, Erdogan said: “Our efforts continue there. Across our border we are building brick sheds to protect them from harsh weather conditions. Turkey’s National Disaster Management Agency (AFAD) along with the Turkish Red Crescent also continues to provide them food and other needs.”
He also said Merkel promised to give €25 million ($27 million) for the Syrians in Idlib and he urged Macron to do the same.
“I told Macron, ‘Look, Merkel gave her support, and we expect the same support from you’,” said Erdogan.
In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited.
The Syrian regime, however, has repeatedly violated the cease-fire, including martyring 14 Turkish soldiers in three attacks in February.
The regime's advances have sent over a million civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey, which already hosts over 3.7 million refugees.
On the Libya issue, President Erdogan said that only legitimate leader in Libya is Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), not Khalifa Haftar, a warlord based in the east.
“Haftar is not someone we will deal with,” he said. “Why? Haftar is a mercenary there. He is not legitimate. The only leader who is legitimate and recognized by the UN is Sarraj. So if you pay attention, we always talk to Sarraj. Unfortunately, Western countries also invite Haftar to the places where Sarraj is invited.”
Erdogan said that he also discussed this issue with Merkel and Macron.
Decrying mercenaries from various countries who fight for Haftar in Libya, Erdogan stressed that Turkey’s presence in Libya is at the invitation of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), the only legitimate government in Libya.
Erdogan said Turkish soldiers are in Libya solely to train legitimate forces of the GNA.
Asked about press reports saying Turkey had asked the U.S. for Patriot missiles, Erdogan said Turkey had already sought to purchase Patriots from U.S., but U.S. officials "did not give a positive respond to this [request]."
Since the ouster of late ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, two seats of power have emerged in Libya: Haftar in eastern Libya supported mainly by Egypt and the UAE, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which enjoys the UN and international recognition.
Libya's legitimate government has been under attack by Haftar’s forces since last April, and more than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence.