French President Emmanuel Macron has told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that it is “vital” a ceasefire goes into force in northwest Syria, where Moscow-backed government forces are leading a military offensive against rebels.
Macron, who on Monday hosted Putin at his summer residence on the southern French coast days before a G7 summit later this week, expressed “profound worry” about the bombing campaign in northwest Syria.
“The population in Idlib is living under bombs, children are being killed,” Macron said. “It’s vital that the ceasefire agreed in Sochi is put into practice,” he said.
The Sochi agreement was signed in September last year between Russia, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups in the region. It outlined a truce in the northwestern region to avert an expected Syrian army offensive amid repeated warnings it would precipitate a massive humanitarian crisis in the country’s last rebel stronghold.
Some Turkish troops were deployed to patrol a planned buffer zone, but it was never fully implemented as rebels refused to withdraw from the planned demilitarised cordon.
Since late April, the Russia-backed government forces have upped their bombardment there, in an offensive that has killed hundreds of people, including many civilians, according to the United Nations.
In response to Macron’s comments, Putin said Russia, which entered the war in 2015 in support of Assad, backed the Syrian army’s operations in Idlib.
“We support the efforts of the Syrian army … to end these terrorist threats” in Idlib, Putin told the French president, using the same terminology employed by Assad to describe those fighting against his rule. “We never said that in Idlib terrorists would feel comfortable,” he added.
The Idlib region is home to some three million people, half of whom are internally displaced after being transferred en masse to the province from other areas that fell to pro-government forces.
The ongoing Syrian conflict started as a largely unarmed uprising Assad in March 2011, but morphed into a full-blown war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned millions of others into refugees.
Focus on street protests
Despite the talks focusing on international affairs, Macron sought to tackle Putin on the internal Russian situation. Moscow has been rocked by weekly protests for more than a month after the authorities barred opposition candidates from running in an election for the city’s legislature in September.
“We called this summer for freedom of protest, freedom of speech, freedom of opinion and the freedom to run in elections, which should be fully respected in Russia like for any member of the Council of Europe,” Macron told reporters in an open-air news conference at the Bregancon fortress.
“Because I believe in a European Russia.”
Putin initially ignored the comment but he was quick to retort after a follow-up question on the Moscow protests. He said things were being handled in line with the law, but added that he did not want the situation to develop like in France.
“We all know about the events linked to the so-called yellow vests during which, according to our calculations, 11 people were killed and 2,500 injured,” Putin said.
“We wouldn’t want such events to take place in the Russian capital and will do all we can to ensure our domestic political situation evolved strictly in the framework of the law.”
The yellow vest protests, named after motorists’ high-visibility jackets, began in November over fuel tax increases but evolved into a sometimes violent revolt against politicians and a government seen as out of touch.
Macron said the comparison with France was inaccurate, since at least yellow vest protesters could stand in elections.
“Those we call the yellow vests were able to run freely in European elections, will run in municipal elections, and that’s very well like that,” he said.
“I’m glad that they express themselves freely in elections because it reduces confrontation. Because we are a country where people can express themselves freely, protest freely, go to elections freely,” Macron added.
Separately, Macron said he hoped to attend a summit with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia and Germany – the so-called “Normandy format” – “in the next few weeks” to try to end fighting in eastern Ukraine.
“There is a real opportunity to put an end to the conflict that has been going on for five years,” he told reporters.
Putin told Macron that he saw no alternative to the “Normandy” format talks but on Monday stopped short of signing up to a new summit.
The Russian president said phone conversations with the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had given him some hope of a resolution.
“There are things that are worth talking about and that give grounds for cautious optimism,” said the Russian leader.
Russia was removed from the G-8 group of countries after it seized Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, sparking a war between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists which has so far killed more than 13,000.
Asked if Russia would return to the G-8, Putin quipped that it could not come back to an organisation that no longer existed.
But with US President Donald Trump set to lead the G7 in 2020, he added: “Any contacts with our partners, in any format are always useful. We don’t rule anything out.”
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, described the talks between the two leaders as “very significant”.
“These kind of invitations to Putin from western leaders are rare, because relations between Western powers and Russia are tense, not least over issues such as Syria and Ukraine,” she said.
“What Macron is also doing, by inviting the Russian president – even though Russia was kicked out of what was the G-8 over its annexation of Crimea – is making the point that Russia remains an influential and key player internationally, and it is important to keep a dialogue with Moscow open.”