Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shows the way to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting on Monday in Sochi, Russia. (Reuters)
SOCHI: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Sochi on Monday, with efforts to bring peace to Syria set to dominate their talks at the Black Sea resort.
Despite being on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, Russia and Turkey have been working together since a 2016 reconciliation deal ended a crisis caused by the shooting down of a Russian war plane.
“Our relationship has been restored almost to its full capacity,” Putin said ahead of the talks, adding that he was glad to see the Turkish leader.
“I am sure our meeting today will be very effective,” Erdogan said.
“The main talking point will be the situation in Syria — the functioning of de-escalation zones and the continuation of the process of political settlement,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said before the meeting.
The pair last met in Ankara in September, when they agreed to push for the creation of a “de-escalation” zone in Syria’s key northern province of Idlib, in addition to others already proposed.
Russia, along with Iran, is the key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moscow’s military intervention in Syria is widely seen as tipping the balance in the conflict.
Turkey, however, has backed the rebels seeking Assad’s ouster.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told journalists at the meeting that Ankara was seeking a political solution to the crisis.
“Without a cease-fire we cannot talk about a political solution. Now we have made a lot of achievements and we can pay more attention to the political process,” he said.
Moscow and Ankara have supported negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana from the start of the year, which have run parallel to talks taking place in Geneva with the backing of the UN.
Alexei Malashenko, director of research at the Dialogue of Civilizations institute, said Putin and Erdogan had a “mutual need.”
“Russia, which is in a very difficult position (in Syria), simply cannot lose allies there — they can’t even lose partners, let alone allies,” he said.
Meanwhile, Erdogan is dissatisfied with the West’s attitude toward him, Malashenko said, pointing to a deal Ankara has signed to buy S-400 air defense systems from Russia.
The deal, reportedly worth $2 billion, has shocked Turkey’s NATO allies.
Malashenko said the economy could also be on the agenda at the talks, as Turkey seeks to regain a leading role in the construction business in Russia.
“It’s a meeting of two charismatic people, two people with a very high opinion of themselves, two leaders,” Malashenko added, stressing the strength of the two presidents’ personal relationship.
Erdogan has expressed concern about US and Russian bases in Syria and said if countries truly believed a military solution was impossible they should withdraw their troops.
On Saturday, Putin and US President Donald Trump said in a joint statement they would continue to fight Daesh in Syria, but agreed that there was no military solution to the country’s wider, six-year-old conflict.
“I am having trouble understanding these comments,” Erdogan told reporters before flying to Russia.
“If a military solution is out of the question, then those who say this should pull their troops out.
“Then a political method should be sought in Syria, ways to head into elections should be examined... We will discuss these with Putin,” he said.
Erdogan said both Moscow and Washington, which armed Syrian (people’s protection units) YPG Kurdish forces Ankara sees as allied to separatists fighting in southeastern Turkey, had set up bases.
He suggested neither country would be pulling out soon.
“The United States said it would completely leave Iraq, but it didn’t. The world is not stupid, some realities are being told differently and practiced differently,” he said.
“The United States has 13 bases in Syria in total and Russia has five others.”