Syria tops agenda of Turkish, Russian leaders’ meeting in Russia

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Russia on Jan. 23 for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a bid to coordinate their actions after a decision by the United States to pullout its troops from the war-torn country.

The meeting comes at a crucial timing with regards to the U.S. withdrawal which followed a proposal for establishing a safe zone in northern Syria and amid significant developments in Idlib that constitute risk to a deal on the rebel stronghold.

Turkey will set up a safe zone 32 kilometers deep into northeastern Syria, President RecepTayyip Erdoğan has said, a move suggested by President Donald Trump, adding that the two sides’ teams will continue to discuss the technical aspects of the proposed measure along the Syrian border.

Turkey and the U.S. are at fresh odds over the latter’s remarks that the Turkish government should give assurances that it would not attack the YPG after the withdrawal of American troops. Trump, in his tweet, revisited the idea of setting up a security zone inside Syria without giving any detail on its modalities.

The U.S.’s proposal came after Ankara declared a possible military operation in the east of River Euphrates to eliminate YPG presence there. Washington came up with the idea of a “security zone” in northern Syria, seeking to meet Turkey’s security concerns against the YPG in the region and meanwhile to prevent any clashes between Turkish troops and the YPG after the pullout of American soldiers from the country.

Ankara says that in order to be able to talk about a security zone, the enclave must be cleared of the YPG.

The U.S.-allied YPG, controlling much of northern Syria, have rejected the idea, fearing a military offensive by Turkey, which lists the group as a terrorist organization.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Jan. 16 the Syrian regime must take control of the country’s north, while adding that Moscow will consider the interests of all parties, including Turkey, in setting up a safe zone.

“We are convinced that the best and only solution is the transfer of these territories under the control of the Syrian government, and of Syrian security forces and administrative structures,” Lavrov told reporters.

Russia is a long-time supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lavrov said the future Syria’s Kurds could be secured under regime control. “We welcome and support contacts that have now begun between Kurdish representatives and Syrian authorities so they can return to their lives under a single government without outside interference,” Lavrov said.

He said there was progress in resolving Syria’s seven-year conflict and that the focus should remain on Idlib, the northwestern province that earlier this month fell under the full control of a jihadist group dominated by Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate.

An escalation in tension between jihadist groups and moderate opposition groups in Idlib is a source of concern for any possible regime operation into the enclave where Turkey and Russia had agreed to set up a demilitarized zone.

The agreement between Turkey and Russia in September 2017 called for the stabilization of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited. Under the deal, opposition groups in Idlib will remain in areas in which they are already present, while Russia and Turkey will conduct joint patrols in the area with a view to preventing renewed fighting. However, these patrols have not yet been implemented.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu often underlines the Idlib deal is in progress despite violations by both Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the regime.

However, Moscow voices unease for the HTS domination in the demilitarized zone in Idlib.

“We are concerned that the al-Nusra Front dominates in Idlib, despite the agreement on creating a demilitarized zone there. It violates the demilitarized zone; nearly 70 percent of this zone is taken by terrorists. They attempt to shell positions of the Syrian army, settlements and even try to threaten our air base in Hmeimim,” Lavrov said last week.

On the other hand, the TurkStream project, an export gas pipeline consisting of two 930-km lines each with a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters, is expected to be on the agenda of the two leaders. The TurkStream gas pipeline is set to become fully operational by the end of 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week.

Russian gas giant Gazprom is exploring different options regarding further transportation of the TurkStream gas to Europe, Putin on Jan. 16 told Serbia’s dailies Politika and Vecernje Novosti prior to his visit to Belgrade.

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