On Wednesday Russia's Vladimir Putin met with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan in their first face-to-face summit in a year-and-a-half, also as tensions soar between the two countries on Syria policy. Their meeting in Sochi was lengthy, lasting about three hours, and comes just as Putin left self-isolation after members of his staff were infected with Covid-19.
In Syria this week Russia's military has expanded airstrikes near Idlib in support of the Syrian Army which is ramping up efforts to recapture a key highway in the northwest, but which has in turn triggered a Turkish troop build-up to deter pro-Assad forces from making advances in Idlib.
According to Al-Monitor a number of defense related issues have further complicated Russia-Turkey relations: "Coming days after Erdogan aired his dissatisfaction with NATO ally the United States, suggested that Turkey would acquire a second set of the Russian made S-400 anti-missile system and asserted that US forces should leave Syria, the stage is set for what may have otherwise been a less cordial reception at the Kremlin," the report previewed.
Official Russian press releases revealed scant details as far as specific stances taken during the meeting, but underscored the desire for "stability" in the Middle East region.
A statement via Russian state media indicated:
In particular, Putin pointed to the successful cooperation of the two countries on the situation in Syria and Libya. He also focused on the work of the center to control the ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to the Russian leader, this cooperation "is a strong guarantee" of stability in the region.
The two leaders also talked energy cooperation, following the big announcement that the Russia-Germany natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 has reached completion early this month.
Putin thanked Erdogan for his stance on the construction of TurkStream, owing to which Ankara feels safe amid the difficulties on the European gas market. The Turkish leader, for his part, touched upon the issue of a joint project - the construction of the first Akkuyu nuclear power plant in the country, whose first power unit may be unveiled already next year.
But most likely Syria was the most contentious issue at the forefront, despite official assurances of "cooperation". Despite the war long having fallen out of global headlines, indicators suggest it will ramp up again given Assad is looking to finally take back al-Qaeda occupied Idlib. But both the US and Turkey will without doubt condemn any aggression and bring charges of war crimes and threats to intervene militarily (similar to all prior Syrian Army attempts to enter Idlib).
Both Moscow and Damascus have charged Turkey in particular with continuing to aid and abet terrorists in Idlib. Recall that the last time the war grew hot there, a major Russian airstrike killed at least 37 Turkish solders and a number of more Turkish-backed militants. That followed the 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by a Turkey F-16 fighter along the Turkey-Syria border, which saw relations between Putin and Erdogan plunge to a low point.
Syrian state sources have meanwhile confirmed Assad is preparing to advance operations in and around Idlib. Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported the following days ago:
"The Syrian army and Russia have strong cards capable of forcing the [Turkish] regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to review the bad [decisions] its has taken to deescalate the situation."
Further Watan's sources described that "the circumstances are now appropriate to impose a comprehensive settlement in Idlib, at least in the area south of the M4 highway. Such a settlement would require the withdrawal of terrorists from it to its northern side and to a depth of six kilometers in preparation for opening it [the road]."
This suggests a coming showdown between the Biden administration and Assad, also involving Russia - akin to the intensity of 2018 which resulted in the Trump White House bombing Damascus.