ANKARA: In a surprise move, the Kremlin on Thursday said Russian President Vladimir Putin does not have a scheduled meeting with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 5.
Erdogan on Wednesday said he could meet Putin in Istanbul next week for talks on Syria’s Idlib province. The meeting was expected to gather Russia, France, Germany and Turkey.
The Kremlin announcement is seen as yet another sign of deteriorating ties between Putin and Erdogan after the failure of a fragile cease-fire agreement in rebel-held Idlib.
Erdogan recently criticized Russian support for Damascus. At least 18 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian regime airstrikes in recent weeks.
Security analyst Metin Gurcan said the Kremlin announcement “means that the coming three or four weeks will determine the outcome of the power struggle and regional dynamics on the ground.”
Amid heavy clashes between Turkish and regime troops in recent weeks, Erdogan has given Damascus a deadline of the end of this month to withdraw behind Turkish observation posts in Idlib or face a military offensive.
Against this backdrop, talks between Turkey and Russia have continued for weeks without any concrete outcome so far.
Turkish government spokesman Omer Celik on Thursday said a meeting between Erdogan and Putin “needs to be held soon.”
Meanwhile, Ankara is sending more reinforcements, including air defense units, to Idlib. The number of Turkish soldiers deployed since the beginning of February in Idlib and Aleppo has reached 7,800.
“Turkey has an intention and offer to meet with Russia to resolve the Idlib quagmire, but Turkish decision-makers keep announcing unconfirmed dates of summits without getting official acceptance from the Russian side,” Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkish-Russian relations, told Arab News.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar talked to his US counterpart Mark Esper about Idlib on Thursday.
Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, said Russia is deeply frustrated with Ankara’s willingness to intervene militarily in Idlib, and is concerned about the implications for the regime’s offensive there, given that the village of Nairab has fallen to Syrian rebels and the town of Saraqeb is at risk.
“The loss of these towns could have a cascade effect and give Turkish-backed rebels control over the M4/M5 highways and vital Syrian infrastructure once again,” he told Arab News.
“While Russia is happy to send a delegation to Turkey to discuss the Idlib crisis, it feels that a meeting between Putin and Erdogan would be a sign that Moscow is intimidated by Turkish conduct.”
Ramani said Russia is playing hardball on a Putin-Erdogan meeting, and is instead urging Turkey to commit to de-escalation in Idlib.
Ankara and Moscow agreed in September 2018 to turn the province into a “de-escalation zone.”
Ramani said: “Russia is fairly confident that Turkey will agree to de-escalation … because it sees Ankara’s military intervention as unsustainable, as Turkey is committed in northern Syria and Libya, and is seeing its currency crisis worsen once again.”