Russian and Turkish leaders Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved on Tuesday to paper over the cracks of their conflicting interests in Syria with a joint pledge to “stabilize” the northern province of Idlib.
The two presidents had “reached an understanding on how, and what we can do, to solve these issues in Syria,” Erdogan said after talks in Moscow.
Moscow and Ankara agreed nearly a year ago to de-escalate tensions in Idlib to prevent a bloodbath in Syria’s last opposition stronghold. However, Assad regime forces backed by Russian airstrikes launched a new offensive in April to drive out militants led by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Erdogan said on Tuesday more than 500 civilians had been killed the new attack, which violated last year’s agreement and should halt immediately. “It is unacceptable for the regime to rain death on civilians from the air and on the ground under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” he said.
However, Putin insisted the offensive was necessary to uproot militants who used the area as a base to target Russian bases in Syria. “The de-escalation zone cannot serve as a refuge for militants and a platform for launching new attacks,” he said.
Nevertheless, he added: “We understand Turkey’s concern about the security of its southern border and view it as Turkey’s legitimate interest.”
It was clear from their talks that Erdogan and Putin disagree on how to implement their agreement last year in Sochi, analyst Timur Akhmetov told Arab News.
“Turkey seems to have asked for more time to eliminate terrorists in Idlib in its own way, but Russia says Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham is still capable of attacking its positions,” said Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council.
“They will try to work something out until their next summit in Turkey.”
Before their talks on Tuesday, Putin and Erdogan visited an airshow outside Moscow, where they inspected Russia’s new Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet. “There was a lot of interest from our Turkish partners,” Putin said.
The purchase of Russian fighters by Turkey, a NATO member, would further anger Washington after Erdogan bought Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. In retaliation, the US removed Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program.
As a result, “more Russian arms sales to Turkey are probably inevitable,” Dr. Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, told Arab News.
“The interest by the Turks in the Su-57 signals how Ankara is looking more closely at Russian weapons systems as opposed to Western systems,” he said. “The more Turkey buys from Russia, the less interoperable the equipment becomes with NATO. Turkey cannot keep buying equipment from Russia in this manner because it becomes a security issue within NATO itself. This raises the question of where Turkey sits in the alliance.”