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Erdogan enjoys dessert but no deal on Moscow trip

Turkish president saw Putin, warplanes and ice cream in Russia, but much-sought assurances on Syria's Idlib province weren't forthcoming
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) stopping for ice cream outside Moscow on 27 August (Handout/Turkish presidency press office/AFP)


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Ankara

Ahead of his trip to Moscow, Recep Tayyip Erdogan had one priority: negotiate a way out of the crisis in Idlib where a pro-Syrian government offensive has endangered Turkish troops and millions of civilians alike.

Instead, on Tuesday, the Turkish president inaugurated a defence expo, enjoyed some ice cream paid for by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, bargained for a chopper and inspected a Su-57 fighter jet.

After a meeting with Putin, it was clear for observers in Ankara that there was no immediate deal to stop the humanitarian catastrophe playing out in Idlib, the Syrian revolution's last redoubt.

There, around 1,000 civilians have been killed since April, tens of thousands more have been displaced and a Turkish observation point has been surrounded by hostile Syrian government forces.

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Erdogan and Putin did touch on the topic. In a joint press statement, Erdogan warned that the pact signed last year between Ankara and Moscow, giving Turkey time to rid Idlib of militants, could only be honoured if the Syrian government stops its attacks on civilians.

“The regime’s provocations have reached the degree of endangering the lives of our soldiers in the region. I would also like to note that our right to legitimate self-defence will lead us to defence, especially along our borders.” Erdogan said.

Putin, on the other hand, said both sides have reached an agreement to impose additional measures to eliminate militants from Idlib. 

Yet he did not comment on the progress of pro-government forces on the ground and the encircling of the Turkish observation post in the southern Idlib town of Morek.

According to Kerim Has, a Moscow-based independent analyst focusing on Turkish-Russian relations, this was not the first time Putin played coy over the observation point.

“After the recent attacks near the Turkish stations, Erdogan couldn’t reach Putin for more than four days," he told Middle East Eye.

Erdogan and Putin have ice cream

Erdogan and Putin shared an ice cream in Moscow, but failed to agree on how to stop the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib.

Posted by Middle East Eye on Wednesday, August 28, 2019

No end product

A Turkish source with knowledge of the bilateral discussions told MEE that the Moscow meeting was positive but the sides couldn’t reach a deal.

“We agree on principles [such as the protection of civilians and the Turkish posts] but there are problems when it comes to details,” the source said.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Ankara expects the military pressure on Idlib and the Turkish observation posts to diminish until Turkey, Russia and Iran convene a meeting on Syria on 16 September.

'Step by step, Turkey would need to evacuate its military bases in Idlib'

- Kerim Has, analyst

However, the Syrian air force, backed by Russia, continued to bombard parts of Idlib on Wednesday, including areas surrounding a Turkish observation post in Sheir Maghar.

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to government protocol, said the station wasn’t hit.

“The regime bombarded a village nearby controlled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham," the official said, adding that it was an attempt to force Turkey into engaging with Damascus directly.

Has, the analyst, told MEE it was likely that the Syrian government, backed by Russia, would gradually progress on the ground and continue to push militant groups toward the Turkish border.

“Step by step, Turkey would need to evacuate its military bases in Idlib," he said, adding that previous agreements inked between Ankara and Moscow would be constantly updated in response to developments on the ground.

Improving relations

Putin’s close dialogue with Erdogan in Moscow raised eyebrows across the Atlantic.

CNN broadcast images of Erdogan and Putin with a banner that read: “Putin courting Turkey with weapons and warplanes as Turkish ties with Washington are deteriorating.”

Experts believe Putin played the whole situation to his benefit as part of an excellent PR strategy to solidify the western view that Turkey is slipping away from the West.

'It was a message to the West and the US in terms of the future and development of Turkish-Russian relations'

- Turkish official

“Putin, deliberately, picked Maks-2019 [defence expo] as a venue in order to demonstrate that Turkey, which has already purchased the S-400s [Russian anti-aircraft missile system], is also interested in Russian warplanes,” Has said. 

“It is likely that Turkey made concessions or made promises to Putin to convince him [to stop the government attacks in Idlib], such as making further arms purchases of the Su type of warplanes.”

Turkish officials, however, say the meeting itself was important beyond the Idlib predicament.

“It was an occasion where we took steps to improve our relations in the future,” the official said.

“It was a message to the West and the US in terms of the future and development of Turkish-Russian relations.”