MIDDLE EAST

High-level Turkish-Russian diplomatic talks increase to resolve situation in Idlib

Children attend a class in a school that was partially destroyed during battles, in the village of Kufayr, in Syria's Idlib governorate, on February 4, 2019 (AFP Photo)

Idlib continues to be at the center of Turkish-Russian relations as the two countries' defense ministers met Monday to discuss the developments in the Syrian province, hoping to preserve the previously achieved cease-fire

In a bid to discuss settling the complex issues in Syria, particularly over tensions in the northwestern province of Idlib, officials from Turkey and Russia enhanced efforts with diplomatic talks. Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made a visit to Ankara yesterday upon the invitation of his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar to discuss latest developments in Syria. The visit came prior to the trilateral leader's summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran that will be held in the Russian resort city of Sochi on Feb. 14 with the presidents of the three countries.

According to the Turkish Defense Ministry's statement that was released after the meeting, the ministers discussed the latest situation in Syria and exchanged views on the measures that could be taken to ensure security in the demilitarized zone in Idlib. They affirmed their commitment to the Astana agreement, the statement added. The two countries also agreed on intelligence and military cooperation in Idlib to ensure peace and security in the region. Speaking after the meeting, Akar said that efforts to boost bilateral relations are "valuable" and will contribute to peace and regional stability. "Beyond that, I believe that this will indeed contribute to world peace," Akar added.

Shoigu thanked Akar for the warm reception and recalled that military experts from both sides met in Moscow earlier this month to talk about "the most important issues for the Syrian settlement regarding further stabilization in the Idlib zone and everything that concerns the eastern bank of the Euphrates." The enhanced visits as well as strong personal diplomacy between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have indicated that the close collaboration between the two countries will continue to find a solution to Syrian crisis.

The two countries, once were foes suffered from corrosive conflicts throughout the history triggered by historical grievances, now have a solid diplomatic cooperation, which paved a way to stop bloodshed in certain extent and maintain stability in the war-torn country. Yet, the existence of formerly al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib currently remains as a vexing problem.

Moscow-based Eurasia analyst and journalist Eşref Yalınkılıçlı told Daily Sabah that both parts has been doing their best to maintain ceasefire in Idlib, however, he added, Russia expects Turkey to push its limits more to tackle HTS issue in military means.

"Even though Moscow grumbles via lower-level officials, it does not overtly express disappointment over Idlib issue yet and refrain from blaming Ankara," he said. Three possible scenarios lie on the table to play out in eliminating the HTS existence in the province, recent reports suggest. First of them is forcing the militants to leave, possibly by applying coercive measures including a military offensive, a solution favored by Bashar Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran. However, this "solution" make Ankara's blood run cold due to concerns of triggering a new migrant wave bound to Turkey's borders.

Ankara previously fend off such a hazardous scenario for itself with Sochi agreement, reached between Turkey and Russia in September 2018 to decrease tensions and avoid new conflicts in Idlib. Prior to the Sochi agreement, Syria's Bashar Assad regime was preparing for a full-scale attack on Idlib, the last opposition stronghold. It was feared that the full-scale attack on Idlib would cause a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, which is home to about 3.5 million Syrians, many internally displaced. Hosting near 4 million Syrians fled from the civil war, Ankara already went much beyond of its capacity, many Turkish citizens think.

Turkey would prefer to resort a limited operation to break the resistance of HTS or continue negotiations to persuade militants dissolve the organization.

The two countries are on the same page on supporting U.S. withdrawal from Syria, another vital issue regarding the Syrian peace process.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters yesterday that Moscow insists that the U.S. should fulfill its pledge to fully withdraw from Syria.

"We insist that the United States should fulfill its pledge and fully withdraw from Syria," he said.

On December 19, 2018, US President Donald Trump ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, claiming that Daesh terrorist organization had been defeated. Enes Yalman, director of the International Off

ice of Ibn Haldun University, said that the developments in Idlib and Manbij are closely related with U.S. withdrawal process.

"The main agenda of Turkish-Russian talks is determine a road-map for post-U.S. era. Russia also tries to form a direct contact between Bashar Assad regime and Turkey, which, Ankara so far strongly rejected," he said.

Divergences on YPG

Along with ongoing talks on Idlib, Turkish and Russian officials scramble to form a constitutional committee, a key process for a political solution centered around the Astana process, which is sponsored by the two countries and Iran.

Initiated by Turkey, Russia and Iran, the Astana process aims to bring all warring parties in the Syrian conflict to the table to facilitate U.N. sponsored peace talks in Geneva. However, there are also shelved disagreements, including role of PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG) in Syria's future.

Yalınkılıçlı said that both Turkey and Russia support presence of Kurds in the talks for a political solution in Syria, but what they intend while referring "Kurds" is drastically differentiates.

"Russia seeks to include YPG to the political table as representatives of Kurds, which is a red-line for Turkish side," he emphasized.

Turkey sees YPG as Syrian extension of PKK terrorist organization, which claimed lives of 40,000 people during its 30-year terror campaign against Turkish state.

Mustafa Kırıkçıoğlu / Daily Sabah

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