Turkey and Syria are conducting previously-unknown negotiations in an attempt to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria in the wake of a US withdrawal from the region, according to the Jerusalem Post, citing Turkish officials.
The announcement comes as Russian-backed Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad sweep back into the region - heading for incoming Turkish troops moving in from the north.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan has backed anti-Assad rebels during Syria's eight-year civil war, calling Assad a terrorist who should be driven from power.
The newly revealed backchannels were first initiated over a separate escalation in northwest Syria, at a time when Russian-backed Syrian troops launched an assault in the Idlib region which contained Turkish forces. Those same channels are now being used to avoid direct conflict, according to the report.
"We have been in contact with Syria on military and intelligence issues for some time in order to avoid any problems on the field," a Turkish official told Reuters, adding "Contact with Syria has largely been through Russia, but this communication was done directly between Turkey and Syria at times to avoid Syrian and Turkish soldiers engaging in direct confrontation."
While the Turkish government insists that it has not changed its stance towards Assad, the security contacts with Damascus reflect a growing reality that it cannot ignore the Syrian president's steady restoration of control over his country.
Russia's position as go-between also points to the central role played by Moscow - Assad's most powerful backer - in Syria since President Donald Trump said he was pulling U.S. troops out of northern Syria.
Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday for talks which are likely to shape the next steps in northeast Syria.
"We will also receive information about Syria's perspective and the steps it will take during the meeting with Putin," a senior Turkish official said. -Jerusalem Post
On October 9, Turkey launched a cross-border offensive against Kurdish-led forces to establish a 20-mile "safe zone" near the border. Once this is completed, Erdogan is preparing to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees.
Meanwhile, a 5-day ceasefire expires late Tuesday focusing on two Syrian border towns; Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain - the latter of which the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced their withdrawal from on Sunday. That said, a spokesman for the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said the withdrawal was not yet complete. Turkey, meanwhile, says it's in control of Tel Abyad.
Last week, Erdogan announced that he would accept Syrian forces entering the border town of Manbij as long as the Kurdish YPG militia - the core component of the SDF considered a terrorist group by Ankara - was removed.
While Russia and Syria are longstanding allies in the region, Ankara and Moscow have grown closer according to the report - as their ties have strengthened over joint energy projects as well as Turkey's purchase of Russian missile defense systems over comparable US equipment.
As Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence hammered out a surprise Syria truce under the glare of international media on Thursday, Russia's Syria envoy quietly met Erdogan's national security aide in another part of the president's palace.
Syrian media reported that envoy Alexander Lavrentiev met Assad in Damascus the next day, without saying whether he had brought a message from Ankara.
A third Turkish official said Lavrentiev's talks in Turkey had focused on preparations for Erdogan and Putin's meeting.
Turkey and Russia have cooperated more closely on Syria since agreeing two years ago to work along with Assad's other main ally, Iran, to contain the fighting. -Jerusalem Post
Turkey insists that Syria must conduct free elections overseen by the United Nations, and has vowed to work with whoever wins a "fair vote."