Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a high stakes meeting Thursday in Moscow aimed at de-escalating tensions between armies of Turkey, a NATO member, and Russia, a nuclear superpower, in Syria’s war-torn Idlib province.
While nominally partners in a fight against terrorism in the region, Moscow and Ankara have been cast on a seemingly unavoidable collision course in Idlib — the territory in northwest Syria where Russia is helping its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, wipe out one of the last remaining bastions of opposition to his rule.
Turkey, along with western governments, accuses the Syrian government of carrying out a bombing campaign with Russian support that has provoked a humanitarian crisis, with nearly a million civilians fleeing the fighting for the Syria-Turkey border.
The siege has also met with forceful pushback from Ankara because it opposes Assad’s rule. In response, Turkey has launched a military campaign intended to protect what it says are largely anti-Assad rebels, not terrorists, in the Idlib stronghold.
During his briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia hoped for a compromise with Erdogan, despite those differences.
"We expect to reach a common understanding on the crisis, the cause of the crisis, the harmful effects of the crisis and arrive at a set of necessary joint measures,” Peskov said.
In turn, Erdogan has indicated he expects to negotiate a cease-fire with Putin over Idlib, despite vowing that a recent spate of Turkish attacks against Syria government targets were “only the beginning” of revenge for the death of several dozen Turkish soldiers by Syrian bombing raids last week.
Injecting more uncertainty ahead of the talks was Assad.
In an interview with the Kremlin-backed Rossiya-24 channel, the Syrian leader said his forces would finish the operation in Idlib before moving on to mop up remaining pockets of resistance.
"I’ve said many times that Idlib, from a military point of view, is a steppingstone, and they put all their forces to stop its liberation so we can’t proceed to the east,” Assad said, accusing Turkey and its NATO alliance partner, the United States, of trying to thwart his inevitable military progress.
The art of diplomacy
On the eve of the Putin-Erdogan summit, events surrounding the Idlib battlefield continued to churn unpredictably, a sign that all sides were trying to increase bargaining positions ahead of the talks.
On Wednesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Turkey had violated earlier negotiated agreements with Moscow, accusing Ankara of providing direct military aid to terrorist groups in Idlib who routinely fire on Russia’s main base in the region.
Russia also seized the strategic town of Saraqeb from Turkish-backed rebels, a move that according to Russian media reports, put Russian soldiers in the immediate line of fire from Turkish forces. No injuries were reported.
Multiple reports also suggested Russia had beefed up its naval presence by dispatching a fourth warship to the region.
Meanwhile, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov insisted that western reports of mass refugee flows and a humanitarian crisis along the Turkey-Syria border were overblown and reflected “fake concern” over the issue.
Turkey, Konashenkov argued, had instead been intentionally pushing refugees from other countries toward Europe in an effort to gain concessions and backing from the European Union in Ankara’s standoff with Moscow.
'Tsar vs. sultan'
Russia entered the Syrian civil war in 2015, aiding Assad in what the Kremlin insisted was an anti-terrorist campaign against Islamic State, and what western powers have billed as a ruthless effort to root out opposition to Assad’s rule.
For a time, Moscow and Ankara papered over those differences, choosing to focus on a common enemy in Islamic State, which had carried out terrorist attacks in both countries, killing scores of people. Later deals involving trade, energy and oil also helped their alliance.
Yet the standoff over Assad has always been at the core of the relationship between Putin and Erdogan, which Russian media have billed as ‘"the tsar vs. the sultan."
Analysts in Moscow see a dangerous game in which Russia’s ambitions to become a Middle East power broker through Syria have bumped into Turkey’s ascension as a key regional player.
"For Turkey, it’s about its own internal stability, and of course, huge ambitions,” Alexey Malashenko, chief researcher at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, told VOA in an interview.
"But the presence of Russia in the south of Syria proves once again that Russia is still a power. If there’s no Assad, Russia’s not in Syria, and we’re not in the Middle East.”
The facts of war
Despite its role as a Middle East powerbroker, Russia’s presence has struggled to stem recent fighting between Damascus and Ankara.
Turkey said Syrian government airstrikes had killed 54 Turkish soldiers in February alone, including 33 airstrikes in Idlib last week.
Turkish forces responded by shooting down three Syrian government warplanes and striking a military airport deep inside Syrian territory which killed what it said were over 100 Assad regime loyalists. “
We said that we would avenge the death of our martyrs,” Erdogan said this week. “By destroying the regime’s warplanes and tanks, we are making it pay a very heavy price.”
As casualties mounted on both sides, analysts in Moscow openly questioned whether Russia could assert pressure to stop the fighting, even if it wanted to.
"Of course, Russia has a certain degree of influence on Damascus. But you could also look it at from another angle — that it’s Russia who is trapped,” Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, said in an interview. “It cannot say to Damascus, ‘If you don’t do this, we’ll withdraw our forces and leave.’ It won’t happen."
The implication? Despite any agreements between Putin and Erdogan in Thursday's meeting, Assad may not follow the script.