Turkey proposes emergency plan to avert Idlib bloodshed
Ankara has drawn up a plan to offer armed rebel groups safe conduct out of the Syrian province of Idlib in a bid to avert the bloodshed of a major assault by Damascus, the pro-government Sabah newspaper reported on Friday.
As the Turkish president meets with the leader of Russia and Iran in Tehran on Friday to try and reach a solution to the seven-year Syrian conflict, Ankara - which is wary about an attempt by Bashar al-Assad's forces to retake the last rebel bastion of Idlib - has drawn up a plan to avert an assault, Sabah reported.
The three powers have all been vying for influence in war-torn Syria over previous years, stationing troops and supporting various militias during the civil conflict.
According to the plan, 12 armed groups - including the extremist Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib - would lay down their arms and be evacuated from the province, the newspaper said, without revealing its sources.
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The groups would be offered safe passage to a buffer zone, under the surveillance of the moderate opposition on condition they hand over weapons to a loose coalition of other rebel groups backed by Ankara, it continued.
Foreign fighters in the group would be allowed to return to their home countries if they wish, Sabah said.
But the groups who refuse to disarm and evacuate would be targeted by the "counter-terror" operations led by the Syrian regime and its allies, the report said.
As in other regions taken by Ankara-backed rebels, Turkey will later train a rebel force to ensure Idlib's security.
The plan will also secure the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, as well as mineral deposits in the region, it said.
Turkey, which has already listed al-Nusra and al-Qaeda as terror groups, added HTS to the list last month.
Ankara fears a major assault on Idlib could spark an influx of refugees across its borders, and warned a military solution would only cause "disaster". Estimates predict that up to 700,000 people in Idlib could be displaced during an offensive.
Turkey's plan comes after weeks of intense negotiations with Russia.
Analysts say Ankara could be prepared to accept a limited Russian-backed regime offensive against extremist groups, even if it leaves the question of the long-term control of the province open for now.
Agencies contributed to this report.
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