Afterword to the visit of Turkish President Recep Erdogan to Russia

Sochi hosted a meeting between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Afterword to the visit of Turkish President Recep Erdogan to Russia

As previously announced, the meeting took place behind closed doors. And since, following its results, no official documents were announced, no statements were made even unilaterally, many questions remained. True, with a high degree of probability it can be assumed what topics were brought up for discussion, even from the remarks that the leaders, according to the protocol, exchanged before the conversation in the presence of media representatives.

Putin, for example, announced the successful cooperation between Russia and Turkey on the international line, including on the situation in Libya and Syria. And he noted that Turkey’s influence on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh promotes reconciliation in the region. Erdogan, in turn, stressed that peace in Syria depends on relations between Russia and Turkey.

(Earlier, contrary to NATO allied commitments, he expressed the hope that the United States would withdraw its troops from the region, as it did in Afghanistan.) He argued that Turkey is present in Syria with the aim of rebuilding the country, and also said that the United States, Russia, Iraq and Turkey will be able to work together to achieve peace and stability in Syria and Iraq.

But two weeks ago, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in Moscow, there were slightly different accents. Then Vladimir Putin told the press that foreign military personnel stationed in Syria without UN or Damascus sanctions (and these are not only American units, but also Turkish ones) stay there illegally and do not give “the opportunity to make maximum efforts to consolidate” and do not allow the country to be rebuilt.

“At a rate that would be possible if the entire territory was controlled by a legitimate government”. The presence of a foreign contingent, according to Putin, is Syria’s “main problem”.

“Unfortunately, there are still pockets of resistance from terrorists who not only control some part of the territory, but also continue to terrorize civilians,” the Russian president said.

One of these centers is the province of Idlib, the last non-Damascus-controlled area in the country. In 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to create one of four de-escalation zones there.

Observation posts of the Turkish army have been established on this territory. In accordance with the agreements between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, the military of the two countries should conduct joint patrols in Idlib. But for some reason, it was there, under the Turkish wing, that the militants who refused to lay down their arms in Eastern Ghouta and the southern regions of the country moved.

At the same time, Moscow and Ankara have different views on the future of the Idlib zone, which, by the way, is called the “Putin-Erdogan area” in the Arab press. Russia insists that the “disengagement” of terrorists – militants of the banned in Russia “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” and moderate opponents of the Assad regime, be carried out as soon as possible. But the process somehow went wrong, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the other day.

“The Turkish colleagues have undertaken the obligation to separate the normal, sane opposition from the terrorists. This should have been done a long time ago. It hasn’t happened yet”, he said.

But shortly before the meeting of the presidents, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, on the contrary, said that Moscow’s actions “do not correspond to the memorandum of understanding,” and added that Turkey “must succeed here both to ensure the security of the Syrian brothers, its troops and borders, and for defending their country, for which a new wave of refugees is unacceptable”. Therefore, it can hardly be considered a coincidence that the Sochi summit took place against the background of aggravation in the Idlib de-escalation zone.

The situation has also worsened outside the Idlib zone. Last Sunday, the Russian Aerospace Forces inflicted “rare strikes” (as the Arab press called it) against the positions of groups loyal to Ankara in the Afrin region of Aleppo province, where 11 militants were killed, as well as the village of Dardara in Haseka province. Unlike Idlib attacks, strikes against Turkish-controlled areas in northern and northeastern Syria are rare. The Syrian opposition called the attacks Russia’s “clear message” to Turkey showing that there were no “red lines”.

Against the background of the increased intensity of air strikes in the media, there were versions about the imminent ground offensive of the Syrian army in Idlib in order to return these areas under the control of Damascus. For its part, the Russian military emphasize that the target of their attacks is exclusively the positions of terrorists.

Almost every day, the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of the Warring Parties in Syria reports on the shelling by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants of the territory controlled by Damascus. A few days ago, the airspace control means of the Russian Aerospace Forces airbase Khmeimim shot down a drone launched by militants from Idlib.

As you can see, in Syria, the Turkish and Russian military constantly run the risk of being in a situation of direct clashes.

This was the case at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, when the Russian Su-24 was shot down by a Turkish fighter, and the ejection crew commander Oleg Peshkov was shot in the sky by militants, and it remained so years later. Due to the death of a Russian pilot, the interaction between Moscow and Ankara was frozen for almost a year. But since then, the parties have learned to resolve controversial issues in a way that does not interfere with the continuation of contacts. Recall that when more than 50 Turkish soldiers were killed in the Idlib de-escalation zone in February 2020, Ankara blamed the incidents on Moscow, which, in its opinion, did not try to stop the Syrian army’s offensive. But this did not lead to the suspension of the dialogue between Russia and Turkey.

The presidents of the two countries have more than once managed to achieve an end to the bloodshed. The last summit in March 2020 was no exception. Then the result of the negotiations was the Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on the stabilization of the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone of September 17, 2018.

The parties agreed on a ceasefire, the creation of a security corridor along the M4 highway, which runs from Latakia in the west of the country to the Iraqi border in the east, and joint patrolling of a section of the highway in Idlib. But at the same time, since 2018, Turkey has remained an obligation to delimit the moderate opposition and terrorists in Idlib.

In addition to the Idlib de-escalation zone, Turkey and Russia also jointly control the situation in northern Syria. Some areas there are under the control of units of the Syrian opposition loyal to Ankara and in fact have already become part of Turkey, while others remain the zone of influence of the Council of Democratic Syria – the political umbrella of the Democratic Syrian Forces (SDF), most of which consists of Kurdish units. In 2019, in order to stop Ankara’s third military operation in northern Syria against the Kurdish People’s Self-Defense Forces (YPG), which are part of the SDF and ranked by the Turks as terrorists, the presidents of Russia and Turkey agreed on new “zones of influence.”

It was also about joint patrolling of the area and the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the Turkish border. However, neither the agreements on Idlib, nor the agreements on the north of Syria have been fully implemented. Fighting clashes in these areas with varying degrees of intensity practically did not stop, although it did not come to large-scale military operations. At the same time, Moscow and Ankara accuse each other of non-compliance with the agreements. The next round of escalation began in August. By the time of President Erdogan’s visit to Russia, it was already possible to speak of the need to make decisions at the level of heads of state.

“Mr Putin and I will only hold a one-on-one meeting, at which, of course, we will discuss not only Idlib. We will discuss relations between Turkey and Russia, the situation in Syria, discuss what we have arrived at in Syria and what we will achieve in the future. Turkey and Russia are two countries that play an important role in the region, and when I talk about this, I have to say one more thing. We have not yet seen anything bad in relations with Russia”, Erdogan said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

According to him, all difficult moments due to the development of events in Syria are resolved by the two sides through negotiations. At the same time, the president recalled that the “Syrian regime” poses a threat to the southern parts of Turkey.

“I expect from Russia, as a friendly country, different approaches as a manifestation of solidarity towards us,” the Turkish leader emphasized, adding that Ankara “seeks to bring bilateral relations with Russia to a qualitatively new level.”

Recall that Turkish troops are in Syria illegally. Ankara has neither official Damascus permission for a military presence, nor a UN Security Council mandate. The reason for the invasion of the neighboring country was the fight against Kurdish formations, many of which Ankara considers terrorist and accuses of undermining the situation in Turkey.

As Bloomberg reported on the eve of the Sochi meeting of the presidents, citing an authoritative source, Erdogan intends to ask his colleague for help in relations with the Kurds. Ankara will insist that Russia achieve an end to attacks by Kurdish militias on Turkish soldiers in zones controlled by the Russian or Syrian military. In particular, Turkey wants the Syrian Kurdish Self-Defense Forces to withdraw from the cities of Manbij and Tell Rifat. At the same time, it must be said that Turkey openly supports the Syrian opposition, which since 2011 has been trying to overthrow the legally elected President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. In addition, the Turkish authorities, according to experts, control a number of terrorist groups that are fighting the Syrian army.

Nevertheless, Russia has entered into close cooperation with Ankara on Syria. Moscow, we repeat, hoped that the Turkish authorities in the Astana and Geneva formats would contribute to a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis and would be able to separate radical anti-government groups from the armed opposition forces in Idlib province, to disarm terrorist organizations such as Jabga al-Nusra and “ Geyat tahrir ash-Sham “(banned in the Russian Federation). But this did not happen. Under the pretext of fighting IS (banned in the Russian Federation), Turkish troops invaded northern Syria, occupied part of the Aleppo province (administrative region of Afrin) and Al-Hasak, conducted several military-punitive operations against the Kurdish population, supported anti-government forces at the front in Idlib in the struggle with the army of Assad and his partners (IRGC Iran, Shiite mercenaries and others). Naturally, the Turks did not engage in hostilities with IS jihadist militants, since they had cooperated with them for a long time before.

Last week, Bloomberg reported that Turkey is deploying several thousand fighters and hundreds of equipment to this bordering Syrian province, ostensibly to prevent a possible offensive by the Syrian government army. There are no clear signs of preparation for it, however, over the past week in the zone, the number of Russian air attacks has noticeably increased.

The targets of the airstrikes stretch from the southern borders of the province north to the Afrin suburbs. And the beginning of the assault on the southern regions of Idlib province, according to media reports, may indicate that Erdogan was given a condition under which Turkish troops must leave the territory of Syria. According to Al Monitor, the Turkish president will need to make a choice, since the confrontation with Russia will entail heavy losses, and the withdrawal of troops from Syria will significantly weaken the position of the state in the region.

One of Ankara’s arguments in justifying its actions in northern Syria is the thesis about the primordial belonging of these regions to the Ottoman Empire, as well as the fact that there are more Syrians living in the Turkish-occupied territories and in Turkey itself in the refugee camps than in the lands controlled by Assad.

Against the background of these statements and actions in Syria, which grossly violate international law, Erdogan is trying to accuse Russia of the annexation of Crimea, ignoring its historical rights to the peninsula and the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the peninsula.

We must also remember the positive statements of the Turkish leader about the Russian S-400 and even the new generation Su-57 fighters. Ankara’s emotional demand for the withdrawal of Americans from Syria and Iraq should also be kept in mind. It is difficult to say what the Turkish president is guided by in his rhetoric, but his relations with all neighboring countries, perhaps, except Azerbaijan, have been severely spoiled. Moreover, Turkey’s material and human resources are limited, which is especially felt in the current situation, when Ankara has intervened in several international conflicts. The impression is that Erdogan is trying to put a good face on a bad game. Although, it seems, he managed to enlist the support of Putin on the most troubling issues for him. Under certain conditions, of course.

Erdogan, by the way, expressed the hope that following his meeting with Vladimir Putin “an important decision will be made” from the point of view of bilateral relations, which will then “enter a more active phase.” Whether this concerns the situation in Syria or other issues, the Turkish leader did not specify. According to a researcher at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (ORSAM) in Ankara, Oytun Orhan, the most important topic of the visit of the Turkish President to Sochi, which requires an urgent solution, will be the situation in Syrian Idlib. It looks like it turned out that way. At least a senior Turkish official told the Middle East Eye (MEE, specializing in Middle East issues, headquartered in London), Russia and Turkey have agreed to maintain the status quo in Syrian Idlib. How long will it last?

In general, the entire centuries-old history of relations between Turkey and Russia is extremely contradictory. Erdogan is also playing the confused game characteristic of Ankara. He is neither an enemy nor a friend, but a partner. And, probably, this is not the worst option for Russia today.

Note that it was Erdogan who came to Putin, and not for the first time. Nevertheless, one should take into account the opinion of the famous Greek political scientist Paul Antonopoulos that if Turkey considers partnership with the West more beneficial for itself, it will easily turn its back on Russia. As an example, on the one hand, the expert recalls the interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria, where Ankara is going to regain control over the territories of the former Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, Antonopoulos points out that Russia and Turkey have opportunities for deepening cooperation, including on a common platform for resolving regional problems. “The question arises, should Moscow trust Ankara, especially given the fact that the Turkish leader’s friendly rhetoric is often replaced by a hostile one?” – the expert writes in an article for the InfoBrics portal. But today our president calls the negotiations with Erdogan meaningful and does it clearly not for the sake of a red word. Moscow, apparently, has a fairly clear understanding of the situation.

Maxim Stoletov, Centenary


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