Duvar English/Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump has praised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for “trying to avoid tragedy” in Syria’s Idlib.

“He’s fighting on Idlib,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One on Feb. 18.

“He doesn’t want people to be killed by the thousands and hundreds of thousands,” he added.

Trump said Washington and Ankara are “working together” to determine what can be done amid a Syrian army offensive backed by Russia and Iran that the U.N. said has led to the displacement of 900,000 people already.

“You have a lot of warring going on right now, a lot of warring going on, but I am dealing with President Erdoğan,” Trump said.

Turkey has been reinforcing its observation posts in Idlib following two attacks by the Syrian army, which left 13 Turkish troops dead.

Trump’s remarks were met with content by Erdoğan, who said that Ankara is ready for all types of cooperation.

Addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdoğan also said that a military operation in Idlib was a “matter of time.”

“Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. I say that we can come at any point. In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time,” he said on Feb. 19.

Commenting on the talks between Moscow and Ankara, Erdoğan said that they are far from meeting Turkey’s demands.

Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the nine-year-old Syrian conflict but have collaborated towards finding a political solution to end it.

Ankara has urged Moscow, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to stop the attacks in Idlib, saying the offensive was causing a migrant wave towards Turkey, which currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Erdoğan has previously said Turkey may use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.

During his speech on Feb. 19, Erdoğan said Turkey was determined to make Idlib a secure zone “no matter the cost,” even as talks continue with Russia. Several rounds of talks with Moscow had failed to reach an agreement, he said.

“We are entering the last days for the [Syrian] regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]. The talks will continue, but it is true that we are far from meeting our demands at the table,” he said.

Ankara and Moscow signed an agreement in 2018 to establish a de-escalation zone in Idlib, allowing both sides to also set up military observation posts in the region. Since the escalation of violence in the region, both sides have accused each other of flouting the agreement.

Turkish and Russian officials held several rounds of talks in Ankara and Moscow. The foreign ministers Turkey and Russia also met at the weekend, but failed to find a solution. Erdoğan has said Turkey has given the Syrian forces until the end of February to withdraw from Idlib.

“We will not leave Idlib to the [Syrian] regime, which does not understand our country’s determination, and to those encouraging it,” he said. 

The Kremlin deemed a military operation in Idlib “the worst-case scenario,” just minutes after Erdoğan’s remarks.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow was strongly opposed to such an operation, but that Russia and Ankara were staying in contact to try to prevent tensions in Idlib escalating further.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also commented on the issue, saying that Moscow and Ankara failed to reach an agreement at talks in Moscow.

Lavrov told a news conference that Syrian government forces were upholding previous agreements on the region but also reacting to provocations, adding that militant attacks on Syrian and Russian forces in Idlib were continuing.