Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a 2016 visit to Russia. File photo: AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, will visit Russia in the coming weeks, the Kremlin has said, as the expected US withdrawal from northeast Syria shuffles the strategic arithmetic of the Middle East.
“We are making preparations for such a visit that will take place in the near future, if not very soon. However, no dates have been set yet,” Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, TASS reported Wednesday.
Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu earlier reported Erdogan will soon visit Russia to discuss the situation in Syria and its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system – both of which have rancored Ankara’s relationship with Washington.
Russia and Turkey backed different sides in the Syrian civil war, causing frequent moments of friction. Relations reached their lowest ebb when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near its border in 2015, but have since improved.
Both countries, alongside Iran, are the guarantors of the Astana peace process, which has run parallel to the UN’s Syria peace efforts.
Moscow is the main military backer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, while Ankara has armed and backed the armed opposition. A string of regime victories in 2017-2018 pushed jihadist and rebel factions into a final holdout in Idlib province, where rival groups have clashed in recent weeks.
Russia and Turkey brokered a deal last year which created a buffer zone around Idlib to prevent a bloodbath. Although rebels and regime forces have clashed and shelled one another on several occasions, an expected government offensive seems to have been averted.
Meanwhile, in northeast Syria, the situation looks more fluid. Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement he will withdraw the 2,000 US troops station around Manbij in support of Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS, both Russia and Turkey have been looking to fill the vacuum.
Turkey has long threatened to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates. Although US national security advisor John Bolton sought assurances this week, Ankara has not ruled out such an offensive once the US withdraws.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has therefore turned to Damascus for help fending off Turkish aggression. Now regime forces and Russian military policemen have arrived in Manbij.
Russia would like all Syrian territory returned to Syrian regime control. The administration of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Syria, known as Rojava, may consent to this in exchange for protection from Turkey and some degree of federal control.
Turkey may agree to stave off an offensive in northern Syria if Russia and the Syrian regime curtail Kurdish power.