Despatch from Moscow | International

Testing the power of personal touch

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 5.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 5.   | Photo Credit: Pavel Golovkin

Putin and Erdogan used personal diplomacy to avoid a direct confrontation in Syria’s Idlib

As crisis soared in Syria’s Idlib and the possibility of a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey was rising, most policy wonks in Moscow were looking forward to the March 5 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both nations had held several meetings at the Foreign Ministry level in the recent past, but failed to reach a consensus on Syria.

At the summit, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan agreed to implement a ceasefire in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib, which had seen major attacks by Moscow-backed Syrian government recently. Even as Russia and Turkey back rival factions in Syria’s conflict, the countries have maintained deep trade and defence ties.

For a common Russian citizen, Turkey is a preferred vacation destination (with seven million tourists travelling there last year) and a source of some edibles.

Experts point out that it is the personal meeting between the Russian and Turkish leaders that made the ceasefire possible. Both sides also agreed to establish a secure corridor along the strategically important M4 highway in Syria and kick-start joint patrols from March 15.

“The situation in the Idlib zone has deteriorated so much that we need to have a direct and personal discussion,” Mr. Putin noted in his opening speech before the talks kicked off in a restricted room in the Kremlin.

Emerging before the cameras after a six-hour-long meeting, the Presidents, both looking pale and tired, said the discussion had been “intensive and difficult but constructive”. The agreement reached is a positive development for both countries as well as for Syria, say analysts .

Also read | Is the endgame near in Syria’s civil war?

“It is clear that a single meeting, even at the highest level, will not be able to resolve the crisis, but it is certainly giving confidence that the talks will continue, and we might see Putin travelling to Turkey for the next round,” said Farhad Ibragimov, an expert at Moscow-based think tank, the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Preventing further escalation

The very fact that Mr. Erdogan came to Moscow for talks suggested there were hopes for some kind of agreement at the very highest level, Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said in an interview to Radio Rossii. He, too, pointed out the two Presidents would not be able to completely solve the issues between Moscow and Ankara regarding their engagement in Syria. However, it was important to prevent further escalation in Idlib and divert any possibility of a direct clash between Russian and Turkish forces, which was achieved.

Russia-Turkey relations have been far from rosy, especially in the last decade. In 2015, a Russian jet was shot down by Turkey over the Syrian skies and in the following year, the Russian Ambassador in Ankara was shot dead. Despite these challenges, both countries deepened their ties in recent years through a lot of deals. These include the supply of S-400 air defence systems, the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant and the TurkStream gas pipeline launched by the two Presidents in February.

While the two leaders were meeting in the Kremlin, Russian bloggers were highlighting the symbolism of the summit. Mr. Putin held the initial meeting with Mr. Erdogan underneath a bronze sculpture ‘Crossing the Balkans’ by Evgeny Lanceray, depicting troops of the Russian Empire during Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, one of many wars that the two empires fought in the past.

On the other side of the room where Russian and Turkish leaders met was a large sculpture of Russian empress Catherine the Great who was responsible for annexation of the Crimea in 1783 from the Ottomans.

Symbolism aside, economic cooperation also featured in the talks, said officials. People close to negotiations note that Mr. Erdogan had included Turkey’s Economic Minister in the delegation for this Moscow visit, which indicated that Syria was not the only point of discussion.

One of the first statements made by Mr. Erdogan upon his return to Istanbul from Moscow was that Turkey would activate its S-400 advanced missile systems delivered by Russia last year in coming April. This means Turkey is ready for another round of bickering with its NATO partners, who oppose the deal. This could be a message from Mr. Erdogan that Russo-Turkish ties are on track despite the Syria troubles.

The tensions between the two countries look eased for now, but Syria remains on the brink.

(Ksenia Kondratieva is a journalist based in Moscow)

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 1:19:26 PM |

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