Russian cold shoulder towards Turkey in Sochi

Putin reminded Erdogan of a Turkish-Syrian anti-terror agreement from 1998 that could be used as a base for consultations.
Sunday 17/02/2019
A general view at the trilateral summit on Syria in Sochi, February 14. (DPA)
Squaring the circle. A general view at the trilateral summit on Syria in Sochi, February 14. (DPA)

ISTANBUL - Cracks appeared in Russia’s alliance with Turkey and Iran when the trio displayed differences about the way forward in Syria.

Russia and Iran signalled at a February 14 meeting with Turkey in Sochi, Russia, that their patience with Ankara regarding Islamist extremists in Idlib province in north-western Syria was wearing thin.

Turkey also failed to get approval from Iran and Russia, the main partner of Syria’s government, to establish a buffer zone in north-eastern Syria to push Kurdish fighters back from the Turkish border.

The three powers had previously mostly succeeded in keeping conflicting interests in Syria in check but the prospect of a withdrawal of US troops, who control about 25% of Syrian territory with the help of Kurdish allies, has triggered tensions.

Russia, Turkey and Iran, united in the so-called Astana process for Syria that runs parallel to UN efforts to end the nearly 8-year war, were unable to announce a successful end of their year-long effort to select a committee to write a new constitution for Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin said additional talks would take place in Astana in late March or early April.

Under a Russian-Turkish deal hammered out last year, Ankara was to reduce the influence of extremists in Idlib in exchange for a postponement of a Syrian government attack on the province, the last rebel bastion in Syria and a region crammed with 3 million people.

Turkey, which has 3.6 million Syrians in its territory, is concerned that an assault on neighbouring Idlib could send hundreds of thousands of additional refugees into Turkey.

Moscow, however, has complained that Turkey has not done enough to keep its side of the bargain and that Islamist militants have seized control of much of Idlib. Putin even suggested that the agreement with Turkey could be called off.

“Creating the Idlib de-escalation zone is a temporary measure. Aggressive sorties of militants must not go unpunished,” Putin was quoted as saying in a Russian TASS news agency report.

Putin told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani that he wanted to see joint measures “to completely destroy this hotbed of terrorists.” Rohani, during a news conference after the meeting, said Idlib should be “cleared” of extremists.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told Russian news agencies after the summit that no new military operation against Idlib had been agreed on.

Erdogan blamed the Damascus government. “I have conveyed our expectations as to the regime obeying the truce [in Idlib] to my Russian and my Iranian colleagues,” he said.

Despite the differences, the reasons that led to last year’s agreement on Idlib remained unchanged, said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group.

“A wave of refugees from Idlib would be a huge problem for Turkey and the Europeans as well,” Wimmen said. “Russia’s main goal is a political rehabilitation of the Syrian regime, so a catastrophic development in Idlib wouldn’t help.”

In addition, Putin did not want to put too much pressure on Erdogan. “Turkey’s differences with the US are pure diplomatic gold for Russia,” Wimmen said.

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, a think-tank in Ankara, said Russia, Turkey and Iran were searching for a “middle way” in Idlib. One possibility was limited military action against former al-Nusra fighters without ignoring Turkey’s security concerns, Orhan said.

Some analysts said such action could start after Turkey’s local elections March 31 but it remains unclear how an attack on jihadists in Idlib could be conducted without risking a new refugee crisis.

Turkey is keen to use the withdrawal of US troops to create a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of its border to destroy a Kurdish autonomous region there. Ankara says the Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG), a US ally that controls much of the region along the Turkish border, is a terrorist organisation and a threat to its national security.

Both Putin and Rohani said the Syrian government should move into the area held by US troops and the YPG. Before the summit, the Russian Foreign Ministry reminded Turkey that Ankara should not send troops into Syria without getting permission from the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Putin also reminded Erdogan of a Turkish-Syrian anti-terror agreement from 1998 that could be used as a base for consultations between the two countries. Erdogan has said there were contacts between Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies but he has ruled out direct talks with Assad. Turkey is a sponsor of Syrian rebel groups and has called for Assad’s resignation.

Orhan said it was conceivable that differences regarding north-eastern Syria could be bridged by coordinated action from Turkey and Syria. Both sides could work out “who controls which areas.”

Russian consent to Turkish cross-border action would be crucial but there was no indication that Erdogan returned to Turkey with a nod by Putin, Wimmen said. “I can’t see a green light here, not even a yellow one. Will Erdogan go in without that green light from Moscow? I very much doubt it,” Wimmen said.

Russia, Turkey and Iran found common ground, however, in Sochi in welcoming the planned US pull-out from Syria.