Civilians displaced by Russia-regime offensive in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, December 2019 (Photo: Getty)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeated an end-of-February deadline for Assad regime forces to withdraw from Idlib Province in northwest Syria, even as a Russian-regime advanced in neighboring western Aleppo Province on Sunday.

Erdoğan, who has stepped up his rhetoric since the end of January, declared at an Istanbul ceremony, “The problem in Idlib could not be resolved if the regime forces do not withdraw from areas determined in the Sochi agreement.”

The Sochi agreement between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2018 announced a de-escalation zone around Idlib and northern Hama Provinces. But the Russian-regime offensive from late April shattered the zone, surrounding a ring of 12 Turkish observation posts, and seizing almost all of northern Hama and part of southern Idlib.

More than 1,800 civilians have been killed by the offensive, with thousands wounded and more than 1 million displaced.

See Syria Daily, Feb 16: Displaced Civilians Are Dying from Cold in Idlib

Russia has shown no sign of backing away from the offensive, denying that any civilians have fled, and Erdoğan appeared to nod at Moscow in his statement, “We would be glad if we could do this with the support of our friends.”

He also offered a hand toward Russia’s rhetoric that the offensive is an anti-terrorism operation, despite its assault on civilian areas. The Turkish President, referring to the hardline jihadist bloc Hay’at Tahrar al-Sham, spoke of Ankara’s “resolute stance to clear Syria of terrorists”.

But he then returned to his primary concern, the pressure on Turkey from the one million displaced, saying the offensive makes it “impossible to prevent new migration waves to the Turkish borders”.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, closed its border in 2016 to new entries.

Regime Takes Positions West of Aleppo City

Russian State outlets ignored Erdoğan’s latest statement. Instead, TASS circulated the Assad regime’s declaration that it occupied 28 positions west and north of Aleppo city, reclaimed in full by the regime in December 2016.

Supported by Russian airpower, pro-Assad forces have been fighting anti-Assad units in the al-Zahraa area.

Syrian State news agency SANA said other villages were taken, “expanding the safety perimeter around the city” with “massive losses among terrorists”. Regime outlets added declarations that Aleppo’s residents celebrated the news.

Russia and the regime seized eastern Aleppo city, which had been opposition-held since 2012, with months of siege, airstrikes, and ground assaults. Thousands of civilians were killed, as every medical facility in the area was bombed at least once.