Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was hosted by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for a two-hour meeting in Moscow on Wednesday, where the pair discussed the planned U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria and Turkey’s intentions to clear the area of Kurdish militants.
“I stressed Turkey’s duty to oppose and wipe out terrorist organisations including Daesh and the YPG-PYD. We know very well who is supporting and inciting these organisations,” Erdoğan said at the press conference after the meeting.
The Turkish president was referring to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia which has taken control of large swathes of territory in northern Syria in the U.S.-backed campaign against the Islamic State, known across the region as Daesh.
Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organisation due to its links to Kurdish insurgent groups in Turkey, and has argued that Turkish armed forces can continue the fight against the Islamic State once U.S. troops are withdrawn.
On December 19, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his intention to pull troops out quickly, but has since refused to commit to a speedy withdrawal after meeting domestic resistance. Senator Lindsey Graham, who strongly opposed a withdrawal that leaves the Kurdish militias undefended, visited Ankara last week to discuss the northern Syria situation with Erdoğan and other top Turkish officials.
One possible solution supported by Erdoğan is the creation of a “safe zone” that would stretch 20 miles south of the Turkish border. In Moscow, Erdoğan suggested such an area could be used to resettle some of the millions of Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey, adding that 300,000 had already been resettled in areas captured during Turkey’s two previous forays into Syria.
Despite both presidents touting the safe zone as a possible solution, details remain unclear about who would administer it. United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres has ruled out sending a peacekeeping force, the only solution deemed suitable by Kurdish officials from the area. There is thus little indication of how Erdoğan’s proposed solution of Turkey administering the area would differ from an occupation.
Asked about the safe zone, Putin spoke of his respect for Turkey’s security. However, the Russian president gave no sign that he would sign off on a Turkish incursion in the area. Last January, Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” against YPG fighters in Afrin was launched only after the greenlight came from Moscow, which pulled out observer troops and agreed to Turkish jets using the airspace.
Putin instead suggested a solution that would benefit a close ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“If (the United States goes through with the withdrawal), it will be a positive move and it will bring stability to a very troubled region,” Putin said.
“The region is currently under the control of Kurds. As such, we are encouraging the the Syrian regime to get in contact with the Kurds. Such a move will not only bring unity to Syrian society, it will also be benefit neighbouring countries,” he said.
Putin added that an agreement signed by the Turkish and Syrian governments in 1998 pertaining to Kurdish insurgent groups would “cover many matters.”
In the 1998 agreement, the Syrian government agreed to cease all support for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which had been used since the 1980s as a political card in relations with the Turkish state, and remove its leader Abdullah Öcalan from Syrian soil.
The Syrian regime has now recaptured the majority of rebel-held territory, with the exception of Idlib, which is currently held by rebel groups including several Turkish allies. However, the resurgence of jihadist groups in the northwest Syrian province has led to deep concerns in Moscow and Ankara, and the presidents also touched on the situation there.
A deal Turkey struck with Russia in September last year prevented a planned attack on Idlib by Assad’s regime, with the condition that Turkey acted to create a demilitarised zone and kept “extremist groups” in check.
Hours before Erdoğan and Putin’s meeting on Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement criticising the “deteriorating situation” in Idlib, which it said had fallen almost fully under the control of “Nusra militants.” The ministry was referring to Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafist group that was formed in 2017 in a merger with other jihadist organisations including the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front.
“Unfortunately, there are many problems there and we see them,” said Putin at the press conference, adding that Turkey and Russia would cooperate to deal with the problem but that more action was needed.