Erdogan Falters in Efforts to Bring Europeans Into Syria Talks

Selcan Hacaoglu

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to co-opt European leaders to try to defuse a potential new refugee crisis in Syria has faltered, with Russia ruling out a four-way meeting at this time with the heads of Germany and France.

Erdogan on Tuesday offered to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss fighting in northwest Syria that could touch off that crisis and send hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into Turkey and from there into Europe.

But Moscow, which is backing Syrian government forces mounting an offensive to retake Idlib, brushed that offer aside for the time being, with a Kremlin spokesman saying any meeting would likely also involve Iran, not European leaders.

“We’re not talking now about bilateral contacts as such,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call Tuesday when asked about the possibility of a meeting between the leaders. “But the possibility of a multilateral meeting is being discussed and the presidents’ schedules are being coordinated.”

Lower-level Meeting

There was no immediate Turkish reaction to Peskov’s remarks. A lower-level Russian delegation is due to arrive in Turkey on Wednesday to address the situation in Idlib, the last opposition bastion in Syria.

Following phone calls with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Erdogan said Saturday that he will meet them all on March 5, without disclosing the location.

More than a dozen Turkish soldiers have been killed in the Idlib area this month in attacks by Russian-backed Syrian forces. Turkey is trying to halt the Syrian government advance on Idlib because it threatens Ankara’s efforts to establish a zone of control in the border area and could unleash an exodus of as many as 2 million refugees toward the Turkish frontier.

The military clashes risk pushing it into an escalating conflict with Moscow, despite the close ties the two nations have built in recent years.

“Russia is giving full support to regime forces at the highest level, including air support. Although they deny it, we’ve detected it,” Erdogan said on Tuesday before traveling to Azerbaijan. “Are we going to sit with our hands tied as 1 to 2 million, even 3 million Syrians are moving toward our border?”

Russian warplanes carried out airstrikes to stop an offensive by Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish artillery, against government forces over the weekend.

--With assistance from Gregory L. White.

To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at shacaoglu@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at oant@bloomberg.net, Amy Teibel, Mark Williams

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