Russian president Vladimir Putin has said he expects talks with his Turkish counterpart on Tuesday to play a “pivotal role” in resolving the crisis in north-east Syria, hours before a fragile ceasefire is set to lapse.
Mr Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan are meeting in the Russian city of Sochi for crunch talks over the situation on the Turkish-Syrian border, where Ankara has suspended an assault targeting Kurdish militants it is demanding withdraw from the area. Mr Erdogan has warned that he could resume the attack “with greater determination” if promises about withdrawal are not kept.
“The situation in the region is tense, we all understand that and can see it,” Mr Putin said at the beginning of talks between the two leaders. “I think our consultations today will play a pivotal role.”
Russia, whose entry in 2015 swung the war in favour of its ally Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, has established itself as the most influential foreign power in the eight-year long conflict, a role enhanced by the withdrawal of US forces this month.
Those US troops were deployed in the north-east where they armed and trained the Kurdish militants to fight alongside them in the battle against Isis. US president Donald Trump’s decision to pull the American troops back from the border area paved the way for Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish forces.
Ankara considers the Kurdish fighters to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has been fighting a more than 30-year insurgency against the Turkish state. Mr Erdogan wants to create what he describes as a “safe zone” 30km deep inside north-east Syria to keep the Kurdish militants away from Turkey border. He has also said he wants to resettle some 2m of the 3.6m Syrian refugees Turkey is hosting in the zone.
After Mr Erdogan launched the offensive the Kurdish militants allied with Mr Assad, enabling regime forces to return to the north-east for the first time in years. Moscow has deployed forces to prevent clashes between Ankara and Damascus.
“I hope that the level of Russian-Turkish relations achieved in recent years will play a role in dealing with all problems the region has encountered and will help find answers to all questions, even very difficult ones, to the benefit of Turkey, Russia, and every other state,” Mr Putin added.
Turkey has been on the opposing side to Russia during the civil war as Ankara has been the main supporter of the Syrian opposition. But as the Assad regime has reasserted its control over much of the country, Turkey, Russia and Iran — Damascus’s other foreign backer — have co-operated to establish “de-escalation” zones in Syria and sought to mediate stalled political talks to end the civil conflict.
The recent crisis provoked by the US withdrawal and Ankara’s invasion across the border has tested Russia’s role as a mediator. “This meeting will help us to reach a solution to the difficult situation that has occurred,” Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday. “To discuss in more detail the situation and to reach a certain decision.”
A 120-hour truce agreed by Turkey after the intervention of US vice-president Mike Pence expires on Tuesday evening. That deal involved a military truce to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw from a specified border zone.
Before leaving Turkey for Russia, Mr Erdogan had said that between 700 and 800 Kurdish fighters had withdrawn “with the weapons they can carry” and that Turkey was still waiting for as many as 1,300 more to pull out from the border area. “If America does not keep the promises it made our country, our operation will resume where it left off and this time it will be with even greater determination,” he said.
Both Ankara and the Kurdish militants have accused each other of violating the truce. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces said people “across north and east Syria are bracing themselves for an escalation of attacks from Turkey and proxy forces upon the expiration of the ceasefire”.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, said before the talks began that Russia would not give permission for Turkish forces to remain on Syrian territory: “Only the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic can do that,” he told reporters. “Clearly, [the talks] won’t be brief,” Mr Peskov added. “There are many issues. The negotiations will obviously be very complicated, so they will be sitting down for a long time.”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul and Andrew England in London