Damaged shops and rubble-ridden streets in the town of Saraqeb in the eastern part of Syria's Idlib province, February 27, 2020. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

As Russian, Turkish Leaders Meet, Moscow Accuses Syrian Rebels of Failed Chemical Attack

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Moscow’s Defense Ministry has accused rebels in Syria’s Idlib Province of a failed chemical weapons attack. According to a ministry statement, 15 fighters injured themselves near the town of Saraqeb while attempting to blow up containers filled with poisonous gas. The accusation could throw a wrench into the meeting between Vladimir Putin, Damascus’ main backer, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who supports the mainly Islamist fighters who have been the target of a monthslong offensive by pro-regime forces in Idlib aimed at retaking the war-torn country’s last major opposition-held bastion. The Russian defense establishment also claimed that Turkish observation posts in northern Syria had become indistinguishable from fortified rebel military positions, and that artillery attacks on nearby civilian areas and Moscow’s air base in Syria were occurring daily. Erdoğan on Wednesday expressed optimism that a cease-fire in Idlib would be achieved in the immediate aftermath of his talks with Putin, whereas the Kremlin announced that a set of principles and “joint measures” pertaining to the embattled region would be discussed during the tête-à-tête. Turkey this week launched a major military operation in Idlib against pro-Syrian government forces after more than 30 of its soldiers were killed in bombardments attributed to the Assad regime. Ankara has nevertheless made it abundantly clear that it seeks to avoid a direct military confrontation with Moscow, which is providing aerial support for the Idlib assault.

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