The leaders of Turkey and Russia hold talks on Wednesday against the backdrop of the planned withdrawal of US troops from Syria, a proposed security zone in the north and the security situation in a rebel-held stronghold.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin to discuss the complex situation in Syria, as the nearly eight-year conflict winds down and various players – including numerous armed groups – seek to gain control of territory.
Turkey is seeking a 30-km long buffer zone along its border with Syria to contain a US-allied Kurdish militia that it considers a terrorist group.
Sinan Ulgen, a political analyst and former Turkish diplomat, told Al Jazeera the Putin-Erdogan meeting is key for the two countries to draw a roadmap on cooperation in war-torn Syria following the planned pullout of about 2,000 American forces.
“Regarding the security zone, Turkey would not take the military risk of creating it without the blessing of Russia, even if the US totally agrees to it,” said Ulgen.
“Official statements coming from Russia and Turkey suggest a clear difference in positions of the two countries over the issue, and this meeting will make us understand if the two actors will come to an initial understanding to get over these.”
Erdogan said last week after a phone conversation with US President Donald Trump that they had agreed that Ankara would set up a 32-km security zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The technical aspects of the zone were still being discussed.
Along with the buffer zone, discussions will also focus on the fate of Washington-backed Kurdish fighters, who had joined the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, and control of the wider region in northern Syria after the US pullout.
Russia has allied itself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied militias and wants his forces to regain control of the areas lost to rebel fighters after the war began in March 2011.
The region east of the Euphrates River is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the anti-ISIL force spearheaded by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – which the US has armed and trained, but Ankara calls “terrorist”.
Northern Syria conundrum
Turkey has demanded the YPG’s withdrawal from the area east of the Euphrates River and has repeatedly threatened to launch military operations against the group. The United States, meanwhile, has put the security of its allies as a precondition for its planned troop withdrawal.
With the security zone, the US seeks to satisfy Ankara’s security concerns over the YPG while preventing clashes between the two sides.
Russia has welcomed recent talks between representatives of the YPG and the Syrian government over who should control the area.
“We are convinced that the best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government, and of Syrian security forces and administrative structures,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week.
“We welcome and support contacts that have now begun between Kurdish representatives and the Syrian authorities so they can return to their lives under a single government without outside interference,” he added, apparently referring to Turkey.
Mensur Akgun, a professor of international relations, noted there are differences between Turkey and Russia over the buffer zone, but said he believes Moscow doesn’t have much interest in preventing it from happening. However, he said Russia would ask for concessions from Turkey in other areas as a quid pro quo.
“Ankara has been stressing in a high pitch the necessity for this zone for its national security, so Moscow, in the end, is likely to agree to it in return for other benefits in its interest,” Akgun told Al Jazeera.
Turkey has supported militias fighting the hardline armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and Russia may use Ankara’s influence in that area as a bargaining chip, he added.
“Concessions over the situation Idlib might be one of these, or the [Assad] regime controlling other parts of northern Syria might be another. Although Turkey’s position is generally against the Syrian government, having stability and security in northern Syria is the top priority for Ankara regarding this region,” said Akgun.
Idlib on the agenda
Rising tensions between HTS, listed as a “terrorist” group by Russia, and moderate opposition fighters in Idlib is a source of concern for Russia and Turkey, who agreed to establish a “demilitarised zone” there.
Turkey pledged to disarm and remove HTS fighters in Idlib in a deal reached last September, which prevented the Russia-backed Syrian government from launching a major military operation against the group.
Lavrov said last week that terrorist groups were operating in about 70 percent of the demilitarised zone in Idlib, which he stressed went against the September deal.
“Tahrir al-Sham dominates [in the region] and violates the demilitarised-zone agreements,” he said.
Turkey says it has been implementing the Idlib agreement without any problems, despite provocations from different sides in the war.
Several civilians were killed on Tuesday in artillery attacks by Syrian forces, Turkish media reported.
Ulgen said Turkey has faced difficulties implementing the Idlib deal, according to reports from the ground, as HTS controls most of the province.
“The sides are to discuss in this meeting how to address this problem. They might prefer to coordinate in a different manner to solve it, agree to let the [Syrian] regime conduct an operation there, or try to find another way,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said on Wednesday the meeting between the two leaders is likely to be followed by a trilateral meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran, the guarantors of the so-called Astana process in Syria. He added no date has been set yet for the summit.
Iran and Russia, who support the Syrian government in the conflict, and Turkey, which backs the moderate opposition, have been in close cooperation through a series of talks aimed at finding a solution to the bloody war since last year.
Various so-called “de-escalation zones” in Syria were agreed among the three powers, including the one in Idlib, as a result of multiple rounds of talks since 2016. Major clashes in the country largely stopped amid ongoing negotiations.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras