Turkey’s Erdogan Presses Russia’s Putin to Halt Syria Assault

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ISTANBUL—Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in an effort to calm rising hostilities in Syria, where they back opposite sides in the country’s decadelong civil war.

Russian warplanes supporting an assault by the Assad regime have escalated attacks in recent weeks on northwestern Syria, the last major section of the country held by rebel factions, many of whom are backed by Turkey. Russian airstrikes on Sunday killed six rebel fighters and wounded more than a dozen others. Turkish officials say Mr. Erdogan’s main objective was to get Russia to halt the assault. Ankara fears that a full-scale offensive on the area could send tens of thousands of more refugees toward its territory.

“The steps we together take regarding Syria are of utmost importance,” said Mr. Erdogan as he sat alongside Mr. Putin in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, according to Turkey’s state news agency. “Peace there is also dependent on relations between Turkey and Russia.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Mr. Putin offered any assurances to Mr. Erdogan over Syria. Russia says that it is fighting terrorists who regularly attack Syrian government forces, and is committed to helping its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reclaim control over the entire country.

“In the international arena, we are cooperating quite successfully,” Mr. Putin said, quoted by Russian state newswire TASS.

Messrs. Erdogan and Putin have grown closer on some defense and economic issues despite their backing of opposite sides in various conflicts.


vladimir smirnov/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Much is at stake for both sides. The bilateral summit is the latest in a remarkable partnership between the two leaders in which they have grown closer on some defense and economic issues, despite a rivalry where the two powers have also backed opposite sides in conflicts in Libya, Ukraine, and the Caucasus region in recent years.

The meeting comes just a week after Mr. Erdogan said he was snubbed by President Biden, who rejected his request for a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. U.S. officials haven’t commented on the incident, which comes after years in which American-Turkish relations have cratered over clashing interests in the war in Syria, human rights issues within Turkey, and Ankara’s purchases of Russian arms systems.

Mr. Erdogan’s displeasure with the U.S. presents Mr. Putin with an opportunity to further drive a wedge between Washington and a NATO ally that has moved steadily closer to Moscow in recent years, analysts said.

Mr. Erdogan, in an interview aired Sunday on the CBS News show “Face the Nation,” expressed a willingness to buy additional Russian air defense systems, despite the risk of further straining relations with Washington. The U.S. applied sanctions on Turkey for buying the S-400 missile system, expelling Ankara from the advanced F-35 jet fighter program.

“When Turkey is estranged in the U.S., the natural outcome is to come closer to Russia, but Turkish-Russian relations are not a rose garden without spines either,” said Yasar Yakis, a former Turkish foreign minister.

Northwest Syria’s Idlib province currently shelters about 3.4 million people, including many who have fled other parts of the country and now live in makeshift camps pressed up against the Turkish border.

Russia and the Syrian regime’s last major offensive against Idlib triggered the largest human displacement in the decadelong crisis in Syria, forcing some 900,000 people to flee their homes in 2019 and early 2020, according to the U.N. Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrians, is concerned about preventing another wave of refugees from reaching its territory.

After the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, both parties in Congress need to work across the aisle to contain President Trump’s isolationist actions. (Published 10/23/19) Image: Alexei Druzhinin/Reuters

The previous escalation also brought Turkey and Russia to the brink of direct conflict after an airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers inside Syria. Ankara, which blamed the attack on the Assad regime, responded with a wave of airstrikes that devastated Syrian government forces.

That offensive ended with a cease-fire negotiated by Messrs. Putin and Erdogan in March 2020. The relative calm produced by the agreement has unraveled in recent months as Russian and Assad regime warplanes have steadily increased their attacks on the northwest, according to Turkish officials and Syrian rebels.

The new wave of attacks reached a crescendo on Sunday as Russian airstrikes killed six rebel soldiers and wounded more than a dozen others in an attack targeting one of the largest Turkish-backed Syrian factions near the town of Afrin, which isn’t normally targeted by Russia, rebel leaders said.

“It was the first time the Russian invaders bombed the Olive Branch areas and the first time they bombed Turkish backed troops,” said Mustafa Sejari, a commander with a Turkish-backed rebel group, referring to an area of Syria seized by Turkey in a 2018 operation against Kurdish militants.

The attack on rebels followed months in which Russian and regime airstrikes have also targeted hospitals and other civilian targets in the northwest, according to humanitarian groups monitoring the situation. Syrian rebels and analysts say Turkey has as many as 10,000 troops on the ground in the northwest that could deter a broader Russian offensive but do little to stop individual attacks.

“What Moscow is able to do is destabilize the situation. What they do is they attack near [internally displaced people] camps and hospitals, in order to put pressure on HTS and Turkey and put them in an awkward position with the local population,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst on Syria at the International Crisis Group, referring to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a militant group in Idlib.

Write to Jared Malsin at jared.malsin@wsj.com

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