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Russia, Turkey agree to cease-fire in Syria’s Idlib province

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke after a joint news conference following their talks in the Kremlin on Thursday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke after a joint news conference following their talks in the Kremlin on Thursday.Presidential Press Service via Associated Press, Pool

MOSCOW — Russia and Turkey agreed Thursday to a cease-fire in Syria’s ravaged Idlib province, the latest agreement on a cessation of hostilities following an especially brutal campaign by Russian-backed Syrian forces against Turkish-supported rebel groups in the region.

The announcement, at a Moscow news conference held by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was made after nearly six hours of talks between the two leaders as the risk of direct military confrontation between Russia and Turkey increased sharply in the past week.

The cease-fire was set to go into effect at midnight.

The agreement stated that joint Turkish-Russian patrols will begin March 15 along a section of the M4 highway, one of Syria’s most important trading routes. No mention was made, however, of another keenly contested highway, the M5.

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The northwestern corner of Syria, which consists of Idlib province and surrounding areas, borders Turkey and is home to thousands of rebel fighters and more than 3 million civilians, the United Nations says. The pocket is mainly held by the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, as well as Turkish-backed rebel groups. Tensions escalated sharply in January after the Russian-backed Syrian forces intensified their offensive in this last opposition stronghold.

The Syrian government’s months-long offensive to wrest control of Idlib has caused a major humanitarian crisis, as hundreds of thousands have fled their homes and headed toward Turkey, which has long since closed its border to refugees. Ankara, meanwhile, has deployed thousands of troops to Syria to prevent President Bashar Assad’s forces from defeating rebel groups, including Turkish-backed factions, and consolidating government control in Idlib and nearby areas.

Since Feb. 3, 58 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian airstrikes and ground attacks, data from the Turkish Defense Ministry shows, including two killed Thursday after the talks began. Erdogan said Turkey has killed more than 3,200 Syrian soldiers, in addition to destroying tanks, weaponry, air power and ammunition depots.

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For the first time since the Idlib fighting erupted last year, Russia refrained from intervening on Syria’s behalf last week.

‘‘We need to discuss everything so that nothing like this will ever happen again and so that it won’t ruin Russian-Turkish relations, which both you and I respect and cherish,’’ Putin told Erdogan on Thursday.

Turkey has justified its intervention, in part, by saying that it is aimed at preventing a bloodbath in Idlib. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the region in recent weeks in what human rights groups describe as indiscriminate air and artillery strikes that frequently target civilian areas. One of Ankara’s main interests in stemming the violence is stopping a wave of refugees at its border - Turkey already has more than 3 million displaced Syrians.

Previous talks on Syria between Putin and Erdogan have produced nothing sustainable. In the days leading up to Thursday’s face-to-face, analysts predicted that any new deal would be no different.

Moscow has accused Ankara of violating a 2018 cease-fire deal that established a demilitarized zone and of using strikes and attack drones to defend rebel forces, including groups that Russia and Syria consider terrorist organizations. Russia also has been accused of violating truce arrangements.