Russia and Turkey will resume joint patrols in northern Syrian as soon as the situation in the area stabilises, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Al-Arabiya in a televised interview broadcast on Monday.
Joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 highway, a strategically vital route which connects Latakia and Saraqib, were suspended due to the threat of attacks by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on Syrian government army positions and attempts to target the Russian Hmeimim airbase, according to Lavrov.
HTS is an alliance of Syrian jihadist groups which enjoys protection and support from Turkey in Syria’s embattled Idlib province, the last bastion for Syrian opposition and Islamist groups fighting pro-Damascus forces and Russia. The Syrian government and Moscow label HTS as a terrorist organisation.
Lavrov said Islamist militias in Idlib were violating a ceasefire agreement brokered in March.
“We only have to attack terrorists’ positions and exterminate their only nest in Syria. In line with the memorandum, our Turkish colleagues bear the bulk of responsibility for that,” Lavrov said. “Combating terrorism is the number one task. I can assure you that joint patrolling of the M4 highway will soon be continued, as soon as the situation calms down.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brokered a ceasefire agreement on March 5 to end the fighting in Idlib between Turkish-allied armed groups and the Syrian military.
The deal required the establishment of a security corridor stretching around 6 kilometres north and south of the M4 highway. As part of the agreement, Turkish and Russian military units have conducted joint patrols along the road to act as a buffer between pro-Damascus forces and rebel and Islamist militias.
However, both countries have beefed up their military presence since August. Syria opposition sources told Reuters that the Syrian army and pro-Damascus militias were amassing troops on the front lines.
Reuters cited eye witnesses and rebels as saying that Russian warplanes heavily bombed multiple locations in Idlib province on Sunday.
Lavrov stressed that Syrian government forces and its allies had no need to conduct operations in Idlib if HTS halted its attacks. He also said that the armed conflict between Damascus and the opposition was largely over.
“There are only two hotbeds of tension. The first one is Idlib, which is controlled by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group, however territories controlled by it are now shrinking,” he said. “The second one is the Euphrates’ east bank, where illegally deployed American troops have sides with the separatist forces and are irresponsibly flirting with the Kurds.”
The United States has brought an American company to the area to pump oil in violation of Syria’s sovereignty, Lavrov said. Such actions create tensions in the region, he said.
“Turkey and countries with a Kurdish population think that (the United States) is playing with fire,” he said. “We want the Kurds of Iran, Turkey and Syria to live in harmony with the population of these countries and use their minority rights.”
The Russian minister said his country believes U.S. actions in Syria may “fuel separatism” and cause the region to “flare up”.
“I hope the Americans understand that they must think not only about elections beginning in a month and a half but also about the future of the region, which is one of the most important ones in the world,” Lavrov said.