Syria, northern Iraq expected to top agenda of Erdoğan, Putin meeting

MUSTAFA KIRIKÇIOĞLU @MKirikcioglu
ISTANBUL
Published 27.09.2017 19:37
Updated 28.09.2017 10:08
Syria, northern Iraq expected to top agenda of Erdoğan, Putin meeting

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin today in Ankara, with an intense agenda ahead of the two leaders. The presidents are expected to discuss numerous topics in the meeting, including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) referendum, the latest developments in Syria, the Astana talks and the acquisition and delivery of the S-400 missile systems to Turkey.

Experts told Daily Sabah that the meeting is expected to be dominated by talks on the cease-fire agreement brokered between Moscow and Ankara regarding Syria's northwestern Idlib province and the sending of military troops to the region, in order to observe the status of de-escalation efforts.

President Erdoğan said last week that Turkey will deploy troops in Syria's Idlib as part of a cease-fire agreement brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran last month.

"The de-escalation zone agreement was a promising idea [. ...] under which the Russians are maintaining security outside of Idlib and Turkey is maintaining security inside the Idlib region," Erdoğan said.

Speaking to Daily Sabah on the issue, Professor Salih Yılmaz, Chairman of the Russian Research Institute at Yıldırım Beyazıt University, contended that the Assad regime and Russia are focused on convincing rebel groups in Idlib through Turkey just as they did in Aleppo to end the conflict. "The [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] HTS's insistence over resuming the fight has started to dissipate as a result of Turkey's firm stance on the issue. On a different note, Ankara also objects to the bombing of civilian areas in Idlib. I think Putin wants to see Turkey on the ground, creating checkpoints in the war-torn city as soon as possible," he said, adding that outstanding issues of the Astana talks, such as the exchanging of prisoners of war (POWs), will likely be discussed in the meeting as well.

Dr. Kerim Has, an academic at Moscow State University, told Daily Sabah that the methods of distinguishing among radical groups and the moderate opposition in Idlib is precisely what needs to be discussed in detail during the Erdoğan-Putin meeting, adding that it is a "very difficult" process since radical groups and the opposition are intermixed. "Turkey's influence over the opposition groups is changeable. In addition, Idlib is the only remaining stronghold of the opposition. So, the situation denotes a possibly much stauncher resistance against the Assad regime and Russia in the city. Therefore, we are likely to frequently see provocations in the upcoming process," he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed yesterday that President Putin's upcoming Sept. 28 visit to Ankara is based on solely pragmatic goals, Russian news agency TASS reported.

"Russia and Turkey have close ties in terms of trade and economic, investment-based and technical military cooperation, as well as cultural ties, having implemented a number of megaprojects," he said. "Also, the countries cooperate in efforts to ensure security in the region, including Syria."

Current tensions resulting from the KRG referendum is another topic to be discussed in the meeting. While President Erdoğan on Tuesday strongly criticized the referendum decision, warning the KRG that its independence aims could result in widespread sanctions, Russia indicated their support for the "sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of our friendly state of Iraq," as well as other countries in the Middle East, adding that Moscow "respects the national aspirations of the Kurds," in a statement from Russia's Foreign Ministry yesterday.

Although both countries seem to share the same opinion regarding the importance of Iraq's territorial integrity on paper, the Moscow State University academic said Russia's position differentiates from that of both Turkey and Iran, as the country refrains from "putting all its eggs in one basket," and has tried to diversify its options for cooperation in the Middle East, especially in recent years. "Moscow takes a 'wait and see' approach and attempts to understand the limits of Turkey's possible reaction. Once Ankara determines its position, Russia will develop an attitude on the issue. Additionally, Russia is pursuing aims of establishing stability in Syria by convincing the Assad regime to come to the roundtable with the Kurds. We can evaluate the recent statement of the Assad regime's Foreign Minister Walid al Mu'allim in this perspective, in which he stated that Syria could negotiate autonomy with Kurds," Has said.

Yılmaz, on the other hand, said Turkey could bring the post-referendum activities of Russian energy companies in northern Iraq to the agenda in the meeting, as well.

Russian energy giant Rosneft and the KRG reportedly agreed on a deal regarding Rosneft's funding of a natural gas pipeline in northern Iraq, an investment that would be worth more than $1 billion.

In addition to recent cooperation on political issues, a convergence has evolved between the two countries militarily, since the agreement on the S-400 missile procurement deal which envisages Ankara's purchase of two Russian missiles from Moscow over the next two years.

Yılmaz said that while the first delivery made in the scope of the procurement deal will come from previously manufactured missiles, a consensus has been reached on potential joint production of the missile system, with the second delivery possibly coming from a jointly produced system. "In addition to the S-400s, Russia has additional offers for Turkey for the joint manufacturing of some other arms used in the defense industry. Military experts on both sides are working on areas for further cooperation between the two countries," he said.

Peskov said yesterday that the global community has no right to criticize Russia and Turkey for their legitimate cooperation in the fields of defense and technology. Commenting on the West's reaction to the Russian S-400 missile system procurement deal reached with Ankara, he said: "No one has any right to criticize Russia and Turkey for military and technical cooperation, which is in strict compliance with international law and is no way aimed against any third-party countries."

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