Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Moscow, January 24, 2019 (AP)
Meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared “unity” in their efforts in Syria.
The session was more significance in symbolism than substance, with the two leaders saying little publicly about their arrangement for the opposition-controlled northwest or the uncertainty in the Kurdish-controlled northeast if the US withdraws its troops.
“Our joint fight against terrorist organizations in Syria’s Idlib Province [in northwest] will continue,” Erdoğan said. “It is critically important that a vacuum during the U.S. withdrawal, which can be exploited by terrorists, doesn’t form.”
In September, Turkey and Russia agreed a 15-km wide demilitarized zone around Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama Provinces. The declaration averted a Russian-regime offensive to overrun the last major opposition area in the country.
This month the hardline Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has expanded its control of much of the territory, pushing back rebel factions. Turkey, whose military forces intervened alongside rebel forces in August 2016 to evict the Islamic State, did not respond.
Instead, Erdoğan’s reference to “terrorists” has more salience over the Kurdish-controlled northeast, where Turkey is opposed to the US-supported Kurdish militia YPG. Following Donald Trump’s order to withdraw all 2,000 American troops from Syria, the Turkish President has declared his intention to establish a 32-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Without specifically naming the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG militia, Erdoğan said Wednesday:
The US will take measures on threatening regions, which is 30 km deep. We are on the same page with Russia on this topic….Sensitivity of the regions that threaten us is of great importance.
Asserting that more than 300,000 Syrians — of more than three million in Turkey — have returned to northern Syria after Turkish-rebel takeover of Kurdish-held territory west of the Euphrates River, Erdoğan said, “This model that helps people return should also be applied in the region east of the Euphrates.”
Russia has tried to encourage talks between Kurdish factions and the Assad regime, and Putin did not directly address Erdoğan’s remarks. Russian State outlet RT does not even refer to the talks this morning.
Turkish outlets quoted Putin as speaking about bilateral projects “being implemented, everything is going according to plan.”
He added, “And of course, we are actively cooperating on regional security issues in Syria….We respect the interests of our Turkish friends. Especially in terms of ensuring their security.”
Putin’s most significant reference, noted by Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, did imply Russian support for Erdogan’s safe zone. He spoke of a 1998 accord in which he was involved as head of the Russia’s FSB security service.
Putin: 1998 anti terrorism agreement between #Syria and #Turkey is still in effect and it guarantees Turkey border security (deal: Syria Govt ceases support for PKK and stop using it as card against Turkey) #Russia
— Zeina Khodr (@ZeinakhodrAljaz) January 23, 2019