Putin says conditions to end Syria civil war have been achieved

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Putin and Erdogan agree to push for de-escalation zones in Syria, particularly in IS-held Idlib province

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Ankara to discuss Syria's civil war (Reuters)
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Friday 29 September 2017 11:03 UTC
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Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that the de facto conditions needed to end Syria's civil war had been achieved, after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Putin's comments, which followed talks with Erdogan in Ankara, come as Russia, Turkey and Iran cooperate on maintaining de-escalation zones in Syria.

Erdogan said after talks in Ankara that the pair agreed to "pursue more intensely" the implementation of a de-escalation zone in Idlib, which is currently under militant control, in comments echoed by Putin.

The Russian leader said Russia and Turkey would work to "deepen coordination" on ending the more than six-year civil war, adding the "necessary conditions" now existed for the conflict to end.

Erdogan, meanwhile, called the recent Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum illegitimate. Putin offered no opinion of the vote, saying Moscow's position had been expressed by the foreign ministry, which said it respected the Kurds' "national striving" but supported the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Iraq.

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Both Turkey and Russia have strong commercial ties with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of north Iraq, but Turkey - with a large Kurdish population of its own - bitterly criticised the non-binding referendum, threatening economic sanctions and a military response.

"The Kurdish referendum has no legitimacy in terms of the Iraqi constitution and international laws," Erdogan said in his comments at the presidential palace.

"No one has the right to throw our region in the fire. In this delicate period after the referendum, we have to prevent the Kurdish Regional Government from making bigger mistakes," Erdogan added.

Turkey has been battling an insurgency in its mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades and fears the vote in northern Iraq may fuel separatism within its own borders.

Despite a regional rivalry that goes back to the Ottoman Empire and the Romanov dynasty, Russia and Turkey have been working closely since a 2016 reconciliation after a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian warplane over Syria.

"Russia and Turkey are cooperating very tightly," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said ahead of the one-day working visit by Putin to Ankara.

Both Moscow and Ankara are pushing for the creation of four "de-escalation zones" in Syria to end the civil war that has raged since 2011. Although fighting within the zones has decreased, clashes and air strikes have continued in Idlib and Hama governorates in recent weeks.

Russian and Turkish forces have been deployed to monitor the de-escalation zones.

Meanwhile, Turkey, a NATO member, has signed a deal reportedly worth $2bn to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia, a move that has shocked its allies in the alliance.

But while Putin and Erdogan are at pains to project an increasingly productive relationship, a shadow may be cast by Monday's independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, which enraged Ankara but Moscow stopped short of condemning.

Turkey and Russia have been on opposing sides during the more than six years of war in Syria, with Russia the key backer of President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey supporting rebels seeking his overthrow.

But while Turkey's policy is officially unchanged, Ankara has notably cooled its attacks on the Damascus government since its cooperation with Russia began to heat up.

Economic cooperation is also beginning to flourish, with Russian tourists returning to Turkey and the two countries working on a Black Sea gas pipeline.  

'Loaded with contradictions'

Yet analysts say that while both countries share an interest in seeking to discomfort the West by showing off close cooperation, their relationship falls well short of a sincere strategic alliance.

"Relations between Turkey and Russia may appear to be friendly, but they are loaded with contradictions and set to remain unstable in the near term," Pavel Baev and Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution wrote in a study this month.

Russia's stance on the non-binding Kurdish independence vote is troubling for Turkey, for whom opposing Kurdish statehood is a cornerstone of foreign policy because of its own Kurdish minority.

Erdogan will want to press Putin over the much-heralded S-400 deal, which is officially signed but may be years away from implementation.

Timur Akhmetov, a Turkey expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, said deliveries of the S-400s could probably begin only after 2020-21 amid additional orders from China, while Ankara's insistence on a technology transfer as part of the deal may also create problems.

Still, both Moscow and Ankara are, for now, happy to send a message to the West that they are serious about defence cooperation.

"They are trying to utilise the issue of the S-400 for their respective political interests," Akhmetov told AFP.