Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that victory over terrorist groups in Idlib was “unavoidable” as Moscow backs an intensifying assault by the Damascus regime on Syria’s last major opposition bastion.
“The victory over terrorists is unavoidable” in Idlib, Lavrov told the Munich Security Conference, as tensions rise between Moscow and Ankara, which backs Syria’s opposition forces.
Syria’s northwestern Idlib province is held by an array of militants dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) extremist group, which is led by members of the country’s former al-Qaeda franchise.
The HTS group “controls a major part of the Idlib security zone and that’s a problem,” Lavrov said in comments translated into English.
He called the area “one of the last hotbeds of terrorism” in war-ravaged Syria.
The top Russian diplomat said it was “difficult” to distinguish “normal opposition from terrorists” because the extremists were trying to use civilians “as a shield.”
Earlier on Saturday, Lavrov met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of the Munich gathering.
In a tweet, Cavusoglu described their meeting as “positive.”
Tensions over Idlib soared after Damascus killed 14 Turks earlier this month.
The Turkish military has 12 observation posts in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last opposition-held bastion in Syria.
The posts were set up after a 2018 Russia-Turkey deal agreed in Sochi to prevent a regime offensive. But in recent months, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pressed an assault supported by Russian airstrikes.
After the Turks’ deaths, Ankara and Moscow became embroiled in a war of words over who had not fulfilled the conditions of the Sochi deal.
Earlier on Saturday, Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay insisted Ankara had “fulfilled its responsibilities” after Russia accused Turkey of failing to “neutralize terrorists” in Idlib.
The United Nations says 800,000 people have fled the region since December.