Ankara, Turkey – Turkey and Russia have agreed to “normalise” the situation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province following a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
However, despite the presidents’ conciliatory language on Tuesday after a visit to a military airshow outside Moscow, there was little detail on any compromise between the main backers of opposing sides in Syria‘s long-running war.
In a joint news conference, the leaders talked about cooperation in Idlib, where the Russian-backed Syrian military has advanced against opposition fighters supported by Turkey.
Putin said they had “outlined additional joint steps to neutralise the terrorists’ nests in Idlib and normalise the situation there” while Erdogan called for an end to the offensive, which the United Nations says has killed more than 500 civilians since it began in late April.
It was unacceptable that Syrian forces were “raining death on civilians from the air and land under the pretence of battling terrorism”, the Turkish president said.
Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and consultant, said the meeting had produced no sign of a meaningful breakthrough on Syria.
“There are no detailed measures about how they will move on from this point,” he told Al Jazeera. “Russia showed some understanding towards Turkey’s sensitivities on national security threats but that does not mean Russia will stop [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad from moving forward.”
Syrian government forces have stepped up their assault on Idlib in recent weeks, as they try to secure two key roads to the northern city of Aleppo.
Russia has insisted that many of the fighters supported by Ankara leave the region, while Turkey, which is home to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is concerned about more refugees fleeing towards its border.
The offensive – carried out despite a deal struck between Moscow and Ankara last September to de-escalate tensions in the province – has threatened Turkish troops stationed at a dozen observation points in the area.
A Turkish base at Morek, to the south of the town of Khan Sheikhoun, is now encircled by Syrian troops and last week a Turkish convoy heading for the outpost was targeted by an air raid.
“Erdogan’s trip to Moscow was preplanned rather than directly linked to the Idlib crisis,” said Kamal Alam, a London-based military analyst specialising in Syria and Turkey.
“Turkey is more or less cornered in Idlib and there is no way out for them militarily or diplomatically. At the same time, their tactic of controlling or influencing various militants hasn’t borne fruit.”
He also suggested that the resignation of five Turkish generals at the weekend, including the commander and deputy commander of operations in Idlib, could be linked to Ankara’s faltering policy in Syria.
“There is clear discontent in the Turkish military,” Alam said.
Bakeer said Russia would likely slow the military onslaught before a meeting in Ankara next month between Erdogan, Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – the three leaders who launched the Astana peace process for Syria in 2017.
“There is a pattern that I think will be followed until Russia achieves the goal of uniting all Syrian territory under al-Assad,” he said.
“They are doing this in patches. Every couple of months they launch an attack, saying it is a response to a breach of the Astana process. Then Turkey complains to Russia and the attacks slow or end altogether but months later another attack is launched.
“Turkey can’t totally stop this game but it can slow it down to almost zero.”
Unwillingness to negotiate
Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, said Putin and Assad had demonstrated their unwillingness to negotiate with Turkish-backed fighters in Idlib
“The Russian approach is very clear: all the militias in Idlib are terrorists and neither Putin nor Assad will talk with them,” he said.
“However, Putin does not want to lose Erdogan, whose position is not very good at the moment.”
Next month’s Ankara meeting could see Turkey pressed into withdrawing its troops from Idlib, he added.
According to Alam, Erdogan “clearly sees Russia as his best option” due to friction with the US and domestic pressure over the continued presence of millions of Syrian refugees and the “useless Syria adventure”.
“Turkey has no option but to withdraw and talk to Assad,” he added. Such talks would focus on the security of Turkey’s southern border, where Kurdish forces linked to fighters who have waged a four-decade armed campaign against Ankara hold a swath of territory.
Turkey and the US, which has used the Kurdish militia to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), recently set up plans for a secure zone between its border and the Kurdish-controlled territory.
During a tour of the airshow, Putin and Erdogan inspected Russia’s latest fighter jets, the Su-35 and the next generation Su-57 stealth plane.
It came as Turkey took further delivery of parts for the Russian S-400 air defence system. The missile deal has seen the US begin to remove Turkey from the F-35 stealth fighter project and introduced the threat of US sanctions.
Erdogan said he wanted to continue defence industry cooperation with Moscow. He has previously said that Turkey would look elsewhere for new fighter jets if it is kicked off the F-35 programme completely.
Putin, who many observers say has used the S-400 issue to drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies, raised the prospects of joint production of military hardware.
Bakeer said that despite such overtures, Turkey would be unwilling to buy Russian planes while it still has a toehold in the F-35 project.
“Only if it is totally removed from the F-35 and US sanctions are imposed will Turkey consider buying the Su-35 or Su-57,” he said.