As violence escalates in Syria's Idlib province, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is meeting Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Russia believes it is in a stronger position for talks — yet it also has much at stake.
There has been no lack of contact between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin. Since the beginning of the year, the presidents of Turkey and Russia have met in person twice and spoken on the phone several times, where the situation in northern Syria was discussed. But as Erdogan meets Putin in Moscow on Thursday, the situation is far more dramatic than it has been for years.
Tension — and violence — has escalated in the Idlib province since the end of February, when more than 30 Turkish soldiers were killed in attacks by the Syrian army. Political observers in Russia have since noted a turning point in Russian-Turkish relations.
What do Russia and Turkey want in Idlib?
A summit with intermediaries German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron was already scheduled to take place in Istanbul in early March. Russia initially reacted cautiously, but considering recent developments, it's unlikely the meeting will take place. For the time being, Putin and Erdogan want to, again, go it alone.
While Erdogan has used martial rhetoric and launched his own offensive in neighboring northern Syria, Moscow has been tight-lipped. Putin did not initially talk openly about the conflict. His foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, later spoke of his regret over escalating tensions and swore that the Sochi agreements of 2018 would be respected. These agreements established a security, or de-escalation, zone in Idlib — but the accords have only been partially implemented.
Turkey, which backs rebel groups in northern Syria, criticizes the recent offensive of the Syrian army in the Idlib province, where Turkish observation posts were also partly overrun. Ankara demands the withdrawal of Syrian forces to the previous dividing line and urges Russia to stay back. Conversely, Russia — which supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — accuses Turkey of supporting terrorist groups in Idlib.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday told journalists that the meeting between Putin and Erdogan would address the causes and consequences of the Idlib crisis, as well as measures to solve the conflict. Details on what the measures would entail were not elaborated on.
Erdogan on Wednesday said he hoped talks with Putin would result in a ceasefire. "(I hope) there will be a ceasefire swiftly established," he told reporters.
More than 50 Turkish soldiers in Idlib have been killed in recent weeks.
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Russian expert: Compromise is possible
"Both sides are interested in an end to the violence, especially Ankara," said Timur Akhmetov, an expert with the Russian Council for Foreign Relations (RSMD), a Moscow-based think tank with close ties to the government. Therefore, he believes, Putin and Erdogan could first negotiate a renewed ceasefire.
Thursday's meeting may be the first step towards further diplomatic talks, said Achmetow to DW. He believes that the Syrian army will not withdraw to the dividing line agreed in Sochi, but that Damascus, as a compromise, could withdraw heavy weapons. "Further diplomatic talks are likely to focus on defining the boundaries of the Turkish security zone, where refugee camps will be set up and where Turkey could have further powers, including limited use of its air force over part of the security zone," the Russian expert suggested.
Like most of his Russian colleagues, Akhmetov does not believe there is a risk that nuclear power Russia and NATO member Turkey will engage in direct confrontation in Syria. "Nobody would let it come to that. However, individual incidents or "low-intensity tensions" such as in 2015 are possible. At that time Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian bomber on the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia then imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, severely affecting the tourism industry and agriculture.
A few months later the tensions eased.
"Now both sides are morally ready for both sanctions and dialogue," said Akhmetov. However, there are now better channels for dialogue, he added.
What is at stake for Russia?
After the Syrian army's recent success, which was supported by Russian armed forces mainly from the air, Moscow apparently sees itself in a stronger position in negotiations with Turkey. Even if sanctions were to spiral, Russia believes it has the upper hand. And yet, observers like Marianna Belenkaya warn of "one of the greatest challenges for Russian foreign policy."
"The current crisis has once again shown that Moscow and Ankara are getting along very badly," writes Belenkaya, a Middle East expert, in her current analysis for Moscow's Carnegie Center.
Belenkaya now sees the "painstakingly constructed plan" of Russia's Syria policy crumbling. Putin has already won "one round" by forcing his "dear friend" Erdogan to negotiate in Moscow instead of on Turkish soil, the expert says. But this is only the beginning.