On August 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin attended the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Show in Zhukovsky, outside the Russian capital of Moscow. The meeting took place amid the complicated situation in the northern Syrian province of Idlib. The two sides discussed a wide range of questions related to the Russian-Turkish technical, military and economic cooperation.
In particular, the two leaders inspected a Su-57 fifth-generation fighter. The export variant of the Su-57 was being displayed at the show for the first time. The Su-57 model entered serial production earlier in 2019. Erdogan wondered if the warplane was already airworthy, which Putin confirmed. The Turkish leader also asked if it was possible to buy it. Putin responded in affirmative and reassuring.
Besides this, the presidents also examined a Su-35 fighter, a Ka-62 medium helicopter and a Mi-38 heavy helicopter. hen they headed for a Be-200 amphibious plane and the MC-21 civilian plane.
“We have plenty of options and we have demonstrated new weapon systems and new electronic warfare complexes,” Putin said. “To my mind, many things evoked the interest of our Turkish partners not only from the viewpoint of the purchase but also from the viewpoint of the joint production.”
“As a matter of fact, we are ready for this and will be actively discussing specific areas,” the Russian president said.
Meanwhile, the Turkish Defense Ministry reported that a transport plane with parts for the second battalion of S-400 air defense systems landed in Ankara.
During the joint press conference, the two leaders also adressed the current state of the economic cooperation between Russia and Turkey. Putin said that the launch of the first gas pipeline string of TurkStream will be carried out by the end of 2019.
The sitaution in Syria’s Idlib became one of the key topics of the talks. This is especially important for Turkey that sees the recent advances of the Syrian Army in the region as a threat to its influence in the war-torn country.
Putin confirmed that he will visit Ankara in mid-September for participation in the Russia-Iran-Turkey summit on the settlement in Syria.
“I will note that it is not the first visit of the Turkish president to Russia this year. In April, we held a productive session of the Russian-Turkish High-Level Cooperation Council with Mr Erdogan and met at other venues as well,” Putin noted. “In mid-September we will come to Ankara for the summit of the Astana process guarantor states – Russia, Turkey and Iran – on the settlement in Syria,” the Russian president said.
Commenting on the recent developments in Syria, Erdogan said the Syrian Army offensive disrupted the calm that set in after Turkey and Russia agreed last year to turn rebel-held Idlib province into a de-escalation zone.
“We do not want this to continue. All necessary steps will be taken here as needed,” Erdogan added. “The situation [in Idlib] has become so complicated that at this moment our troops are in danger.”
Putin stressed that Turkey and Russia had agreed on “additional joint steps” to “normalise” the situation in Idlib, but did not provide any details.
“The situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone is of serious concern to us and our Turkish partners,” Putin told the news conference. Putin emphasized that Russia did not want this region to be a “haven” for “terrorists”.
Later, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the Idlib de-escalation agreement works, but issues with it still exist. The defense minister emphasized the agreement work is tense and compicated.
Erdogan’s visit to Russia put Putin into a complicated situation. While both Russia and Turkey declare that they respect the Syrian territorial integrity, in the current conditions, northeastern Syria, including the Idlib zone, is in fact a kind of quasi-state under Turkish protectorate. Let’s suppose that the situation would remain the same within the next 3-5 years. In this event, there is a high chance that Turkey will likely be trapped in conditions in which it would have to try to annex this territory.
Politically, this situation may be compared with the conflict in eastern Ukraine where the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics (the DPR and the LPR) act as de-facto independent “quasi-states” with Russian backing. Nonetheless, there is a significant difference. The DPR and the LPR are not the source of terrorist activity and are not conducting or seeking to conduct offensive operations to expand their zone of control towards central Ukraine. The Kiev government is the side constantly escalating the situation and attempting to carry out offensive operations against the DPR and the LPR.
In Syria, the situation is different. The Idlib zone is a constant source of terrorist threats and military escalations. In all previous cases when Syrian and pro-Syrian forces ceased their offensive operations and started unilaterally fulfil the ceasefire agreement, Idlib armed groups immediately started conducting attempts to seize new areas, attack pro-government forces and launched terrorist operations within the government-controlled area.
Furthermore, the Idlib zone is the area where the most murderous part of the so-called opposition is concentrated. The core of the ‘Idlib opposition’ is mercenaries, criminal gangs and radicals. This looks like Russia’s Chechnya after the Khasavyurt Accord (1996) when it became a hotbed for various terrorists, mercenaries and gangs from around the entire post-Soviet space and further. Russia put an end to this during the Second Chechen War (1999-2000).
By the visit to Russia, Erdogan demonstrated that he recognizes Putin (and thus Russia) as the leader in the bilateral relations. Erdogan’s Bonapartism is not a secret. So, this is an important signal and step towards the further rapprochement amid the already growing military and economic cooperation between the sides. At the same time, Turkey remains a key NATO member state and the key US ally in the Mediterranean.
Therefore, Putin cannot afford an opportunity to reject Erdogan’s effort. It’s likely that Russia will use its influence to halt the ongoing phase of the Syrian Army’s operation in Idlib for some time in the nearest future.
In own turn, Erdogan will have to fulfill his part of the deal by using the Turkish influence (including the military presence) to stabilize the situation in the area and prevent militant attacks on the Syrian Army. Right now, Turkey has not enough tools to directly impose its will on Idlib militants. The key issue is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly the branch of al-Qaeda in Syria), which unites most of terrorists, mercenaries and gangs in the area. Ankara can take control of the situation, but it will need a year or two that it does not have.
Therefore, the most likely result of the current Turkish-Russian talks is another temporary ceasefire in southern Idlib. However, the recent attacks on Syrian Army positions near Abu Dali demonstrate it would not last for a long time. A new round of escalation could be expected in late September-early October.