Syria high on agenda as Putin and Erdogan meet in Sochi

Russian and Turkish leaders discuss situation in war-torn country, security issues and economic links at first in-person meeting for 18 months.

Russia and Turkey have historically had complex relations, balancing regional rivalries with finding common ground on economic and strategic interests [Sputnik/Vladimir Smirnov/Pool via Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan have concluded talks aimed at strengthening bilateral ties and addressing regional security issues, including the situation in war-torn Syria.

Wednesday’s meeting in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi lasted for nearly three hours, marking the pair’s first in-person meeting for 18 months.

Neither leader made any detailed statements to the media after the talks.

In a warm post-negotiation exchange, Putin thanked Erdogan, calling the visit “useful and informative”.

“We will be in touch,” he added.

Writing on Twitter, Erdogan called the talks “productive”.

Russia and Turkey have historically had complex relations, balancing regional rivalries with finding common ground on economic and strategic interests.

In recent years, they have clashed over a number of issues, particularly Syria. Russia is the main ally of the Syrian government, while Turkey supports groups that have fought to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.

However, Russian and Turkish troops have cooperated in Idlib, the final holdout of rebel forces, after they brokered a ceasefire deal for the northwestern region last year.

The agreement halted a three-month Syrian government offensive that killed hundreds of civilians and displaced nearly one million people.

As he sat down with Erdogan on Wednesday, Putin pointed out that relations between the two countries continue to “develop positively”.

“Negotiations are sometimes difficult, but with a positive final result. Our [government] bodies have learned to find compromises that are beneficial to both sides,” he said.

Erdogan echoed that sentiment and said he believed “there is great benefit in continuing our Turkish-Russian relations by strengthening them every day.”

He told Putin that “the steps we take together in relation to Syria are of great importance,” adding that peace in the country “depends on the relations between Turkey and Russia”.

Tensions over Idlib

The ceasefire in Idlib has prevented another major military escalation in Syria, but rebel fighters say Russia has stepped up air raids in the region during the past week.

“We are abiding by the principles of the agreement reached with Russia,” Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told reporters prior to Wednesday’s meeting. “We expect the other side to also abide by their responsibilities under the agreement.”

Russia’s defence ministry said that work to implement an earlier deal on Syria was continuing, including joint patrols involving Russian military police. It said there had been heavy shelling by rebel fighters in the Idlib area.

Moscow says Russian forces are in Syria at the official invitation of al-Assad and that the presence of other forces is hindering his efforts to reunite and rebuild the country.

Turkey has thousands of troops in northern Syria after it deployed land and air forces over its shared border in March last year in response to the Syrian government offensive.

Turkey currently hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees and Ankara fears that an escalation of violence in the country will lead to more people surging across its borders.

Strengthening ties

The Kremlin said that in addition to Syria, the two leaders would also discuss the situation in Afghanistan, other regional security issues and Ankara and Moscow’s burgeoning economic ties.

Turkey and Russia have forged close cooperation in the fields of energy, tourism and defence despite their disagreements over Syria – as well as conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, where the two powers have also been on opposing sides.

NATO member Turkey bought Russian S-400 missile defence batteries in 2019, triggering the United States to impose sanctions against its defence industries and warnings from Washington of further action if it were to buy more Russian equipment.

Erdogan last week indicated Turkey still intended to procure a second batch of S-400s, saying no country could dictate Ankara’s actions. Turkish officials told the Reuters news agency the S-400s would be discussed in Sochi.

Al Jazeera’s Resul Serdar, reporting from Istanbul, said the meeting’s significance was heightened by the fact it was taking place against the backdrop of increasingly strained relations between Turkey and the US.

“From the American perspective, the most important thing is whether Erdogan is going to deliver a statement that Turkey will buy a second batch of S-400s or not,” he said.

Rachel Ellehaus, of the Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the talks were an indication Erdogan was attempting to publicly “move closer to Russia” amid the tensions with Washington.

“But at the end of the day, I think this is more of a continuation of a marriage of convenience between Russia and Turkey in which they’re continuing to advance their short-term interests,” Ellehaus told Al Jazeera, citing closer economic cooperation and the situation in Syria as examples.

“However it’s important to remember there’s a great deal of divergence between Turkey and Russia with regard to their long-term goals,” she added.

“In this meeting they [Putin and Erdogan] talked a lot about compromise, which seems less of a specific agreement about what each side will do and more of an agreement to stay out of each other’s way”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies