Erdogan at Putin: what’s next in Idlib?

Russia Red Square with Kremlin in Moscow (Getty Images / AFP / V. Maximov)

After the recent escalation in the Syrian province of Idlib, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Russia believes it is in a stronger position and risks a lot.

There is currently no shortage of personal contacts between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Since the beginning of the year, the presidents of Turkey and Russia have met twice personally and made several calls. It was also about the situation in northern Syria. But when Erdogan travels to Putin in Moscow this Thursday, the situation is as dramatic as it has been in years. Since the escalation in late February, when more than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in attacks by the Syrian army in the Idlib province, observers in Russia have spoken of a turning point in Russian-Turkish relations.

What do Russia and Turkey want in Idlib?

A four-man summit on Idlib was supposed to take place in Istanbul in early March – with Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Russia reacted cautiously, and it currently does not look as if such a meeting will take place. First of all, Putin and Erdogan want to try it alone again.

While the Turkish president recently used martial rhetoric and expanded the presence of Turkish troops in northern Syria, Moscow was narrow-lipped. Putin himself initially made no public statement. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov regretted the escalation and called for compliance with the Sochi agreements of 2018.

Russia Sochi meeting Putin Erdogan (Reuters / A. Zemlianichenko)Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in 2018 in Sochi, Russia

At that time, Putin and Erdogan agreed to set up a security and de-escalation zone in Idlib. But the agreements were only partially implemented. Turkey is now criticizing the Syrian offensive in Idlib, which also partially overran Turkish observation posts. Ankara demands that the Syrian forces pull back to the previous dividing line and urges Russia to hold back. Conversely, Russia accuses Turkey of supporting terrorist groups in Idlib.

The meeting between Putin and Erdogan will deal with the causes and consequences of the crisis in Idlib and measures to solve them, the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Wednesday. He did not say what measures could be.

Russian expert: compromise possible

“Both sides are interested at an end to the violence, especially Ankara,” said Timur Akhmetov, an expert at the government-related Moscow think tank Russian DWR Council for External Relations (RSMD). Therefore, he thinks Putin and Erdogan could first negotiate a new ceasefire in Moscow.

Akhmetov suspects that the upcoming meeting will be the first step towards further diplomatic talks, he believes a compromise is possible: the Syrian army would not withdraw to the dividing line agreed in Sochi, but Damascus could pull off heavy weapons. “Further diplomatic talks should focus on defining the borders of the Turkish security zone, where refugee camps are to be set up and where Turkey could have further competencies, including limited use of its air force over part of the security zone,” the Russian expert conjectured.

Syria Destruction of residential areas and infrastructure in Idlib (AFP / OH Kadour)Destruction of residential areas and infrastructure in Idlib

Akhmetov, like most of his Russian colleagues, does not believe in the risk of a direct confrontation in Syria between nuclear power Russia and NATO member Turkey: “Nobody would let it get that far.” However, individual incidents or “low-intensity tensions” such as 2015 are possible. At that time, Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian bomber at the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia then imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, severely affecting the tourism and agriculture sectors. After a few months, the tensions were overcome. “Now both sides are morally ready for both sanctions and dialogue,” says Achmetow from RSMD. However, there are now better channels of conversation.

What is at stake for Russia

After the successes of the Syrian army, which is supported primarily by the Russian armed forces from the air, Russia apparently sees itself in a stronger position in negotiations with Turkey. Even in the event of a spiral of sanctions, Moscow apparently believes that it is working longer. And yet observers like Marianna Belenkaja warn of “one of the greatest challenges for Russian foreign policy”: “The current crisis has shown once again that Moscow and Ankara understand each other very badly,” writes the Middle East expert in her current analysis for Moscow’s Carnegie -Center. Belenkaja now sees the “effortlessly constructed scheme” of the Russian Syria policy crumbling. President Putin won “around” by his “dear friend” Erdogan had forced to negotiate in Moscow instead of on Turkish soil, the expert said. But that’s just the beginning.

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