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Foreign Powers See ‘No Military Solution’ in Syria, but Diplomacy Stalls

BEIRUT — At a summit in Tehran on Friday, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed that “there could be no military solution” to the war in Syria, but Russia rejected Turkey’s call for a cease-fire while Iran called for a military push to crush the Syrian rebels and drive out American forces.

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Ben Hubbard
Michael Schwirtz, New York Times

BEIRUT — At a summit in Tehran on Friday, the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed that “there could be no military solution” to the war in Syria, but Russia rejected Turkey’s call for a cease-fire while Iran called for a military push to crush the Syrian rebels and drive out American forces.

At the same time, at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, Western powers warned of unspecified consequences if Syria and its allies launched an offensive that has raised fears of a humanitarian disaster, but they cannot act without the assent of Russia, which backs the Syrian government.

Both meetings, while seemingly fruitless, starkly illustrated the extent to which Syria’s fate now lies in the hands of foreign powers and offered little hope that those powers could resolve the crisis diplomatically.

Speaking at the Security Council, Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, said the military offensive was incompatible with diplomatic efforts.

“Either we are trying to find a political way to end this war and move to a postwar political scenario, or we will see this war reach new levels of horrors,” he said.

Those horrors would be visited on Idlib province, the last major territory held by Syrian rebels. Airstrikes continued there Friday.

Syrian P resident Bashar Assad, who has nearly stamped out the rebels after seven years of war, has vowed to retake the province. The full-scale offensive that Turkey, which shares a border with Idlib, and Western powers want to head off may already be imminent.

The province’s 3 million people include more than 1 million who were displaced from elsewhere in Syria, many of whom fled Assad’s rule, as well more than 10,000 rebels and a powerful contingent of jihadis associated with al-Qaida.

Turkey, which has already taken in 3.5 million Syrian refugees, worries that a military assault on Idlib could send a new wave of refugees and jihadis pouring across its southern border.

At the summit Friday, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called for a cease-fire, saying it would mark a “victory” for the meeting.

“We never want Idlib to turn into a blood bath,” he said. “Any attack launched or to be launched on Idlib will result in a disaster, massacre and a very big humanitarian tragedy.”

But President Vladimir Putin of Russia dismissed the idea, saying a cease-fire would be unlikely to succeed because the jihadis in Idlib were not part of the Tehran talks and would be unlikely to respect any truce.

“The fact is that there are no representatives of the armed opposition here around this table,” he said.

Russia and Iran speak of Idlib as a terrorist haven that must be cleaned out before the war can end and stability can be restored.

“The fires of war and bloodshed in Syria are reaching their end,” said President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, the meeting’s host. “Fighting terrorism in Idlib is an unavoidable part of the mission of restoring peace and stability to Syria.”

He also said “we have to force the United States to leave” Syria. The United States has about 2,000 soldiers in eastern Syria but little influence elsewhere in the country.

Putin said after the meeting that the parties would pursue a “phased stabilization” of the area, including “a possibility of making peace for those ready for dialogue.”

It was unclear what he meant, but Russia has previously been involved in deals in which surrendering rebels could choose to give up arms and live under the government or be bused elsewhere. The difference this time is that most of those who chose to be bused out had already been sent to Idlib. If there were a new offensive or deal there, it is unclear where else they could go.

The lack of a clear agreement in Tehran led some observers to assume that the assault on Idlib would proceed.

“It is tough not to conclude that the failure to arrive at a compromise does not translate into new conflict and violence and loss of life,” said Sam Heller, an analyst for the International Crisis Group who is following the situation in Idlib.

At the United Nations, the ambassadors from Western nations stood one by one and warned of calamity if the offensive moved forward. Idlib’s population includes about 1 million children, said Karen Pierce, the British ambassador.

“There are more babies in Idlib than there are terrorists,” she said. “That should give those engaging in military action pause for thought.”

The French envoy, François Delattre, called Idlib “a slowly ticking time bomb.”

“Few disasters have been so clearly anticipated and have been subject to so many convergent warnings by the international community,” he said.

The U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, called the assault “a playbook of death.”

The words, though, were largely hollow. The Security Council, stymied by the right of Russia, Syria’s primary supporter and a participant in the war, to veto any action, can do little beyond expressing concern and urging the warring parties to step back from the brink.

Britain, France and the United States have signaled their willingness to go it alone, at least if Syrian forces use chemical weapons. The United States has twice bombed Syria in response to its use of banned weapons.

“We want to take this opportunity to remind Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners: You don’t want to bet against the United States responding again,” Haley said at a Security Council session Thursday.

But the West has stood by for years as Assad and his allies kill tens of thousands of civilians with conventional weapons. And Russia and Iran showed little interest in backing down.

“Syrian authorities have the full right to fight for the restoration of control throughout all of the country’s territory,” Russia’s ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, said, adding that a sizable force of terrorist fighters had amassed in the region.

“The fight against them needs to go on,” he said. The Syrian government was notably absent from the meeting in Tehran. The rebels and Syria’s political opposition were not represented at either meeting.

“We’re like chess pieces,” said Ahmad al-Khaled, an anti-government activist in Idlib. “They move us around as they wish.”

The Syrian government and its allies stepped up their attacks on parts of the area this week and carried out at least five airstrikes Friday.

In recent months, most of the rebel groups in Idlib have joined with units of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army to form a unified movement, the National Front for Liberation, and have vowed to defend their territory. Only the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham is not part of the front.

Thousands of fighters have gone through military training in the last five months. The front supports Turkey’s mediation but has refused any suggestion of reconciliation with the Syrian government or Russia.

“We told the Turks that any agreement or offers to give up territory is completely refused,” said Idris al-Raad, head of external relations for Faylaq al-Sham, a corps of Turkish-backed rebel forces. “If there is any attack on our liberated areas we will open all fronts.”

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