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Erdogan rules out ‘smallest step back’ in Syria’s Idlib

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday vowed Turkey would not take the “smallest step back” in an escalating stand-off with Damascus and Russia over the northern Syrian region of Idlib.

Meanwhile, a meeting between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is expected to take place, the Turkish foreign minister said, ahead of a possible summit including EU heavyweights Germany and France to find a political solution to the Idlib crisis.

“We will not take the smallest step back in Idlib,” Erdogan told the ruling party’s lawmakers in parliament in Ankara.

“We will certainly push the regime outside the borders we designated and ensure the return of the people to their homes.”

Now the epicentre of the nearly nine-year long conflict in Syria, Idlib has in recent weeks become the theatre of conflict between Turkey, which supports rebel groups in the area, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Russia.

Ankara has confirmed as many as 17 Turkish security personnel have been killed this month alone.

Erdogan bluntly warned the Syrian regime to “stop its attacks as soon as possible” and to pull back by the end of February.

As part of its deal with Russia, Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib but several have come under fire from Assad forces.

“The time we have given to those who besieged our observation towers is running out,” Erdogan said.

“We are planning to save our observation posts from the besiegers one way or another by the end of this month.”

– Advance of Assad forces-

Erdogan added that “the biggest problem we currently have is that we cannot use the air space” over Idlib which is controlled by Russia.

“God willing, we will find a solution soon.”

Shortly after he was speaking, Russian diplomats and military officials arrived in Ankara for talks with their Turkish counterparts. The talks began in the afternoon, according to media reports.

Similar contacts last week ended with no concrete results.

In recent weeks Damascus, backed by Russian air strikes, has pressed a major offensive against the remaining territory held by jihadists and Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib.

In a statement read on public television, the Syrian army on Wednesday announced it had “regained control” of a dozen areas in recent days, including Kafranbel in the south of Idlib, a town known to have been among the first to rebel against Damascus.

The army vowed to “liberate the territories of the Syrian Arab Republic from terrorism and its supporters”.

The parts of Idlib still held by jihadists and Turkish-backed rebels has shrunk to an area roughly the size of Majorca, hosting more than three million people — half of them already displaced by violence elsewhere.

The United Nations has warned against an imminent “bloodbath” amid the continuing fighting.

– Putin, Erdogan meeting?-

While Western capitals have been criticised for failing to exert any influence on the Idlib situation, the foreign ministers of 14 European nations — including Germany, France, Spain and Ireland — issued a joint statement on Wednesday calling on Moscow and Ankara to “de-escalate” the situation.

Erdogan also said that Turkey has not received “promised” aid from the United States, repeating that Ankara hopes to acquire the US-made Patriot systems — high performance radars and interceptor missiles capable of destroying incoming ballistic missiles in flight.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying on state-run TRT TV, that as a first step “President Erdogan and Putin have agreed to come together at a bilateral meeting.”

While backing opposite sides, Russia and Turkey have worked to end the conflict but strains have soared in recent weeks over Idlib.

Russia, on Tuesday, rejected the idea of a ceasefire in Idlib.

The tensions are seen as the biggest threat to Ankara-Moscow ties since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria in November 2015.

The Kremlin indicated Tuesday however, that an Erdogan-Putin meeting was not on the cards, also saying that a tripartite summit with another regime ally Iran could be planned instead of a multilateral one with France and Germany.

A Russian delegation was due to hold another round of talks with Turkish officials in Ankara Wednesday.