On Wednesday, the Russian city of Sochi will host a new summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after no such meetings have been held for quite a while.
The last summit between the two presidents was a year and a half ago, in March 2020, when they signed a ceasefire in Idlib after an attack by the Syrian regime there, which shows a clear decline in the pace of summits between them. Although the covid pandemic is a major reason for this decline, it is difficult to limit the reasons to the pandemic, especially in light of the many indications of undeclared tensions between the two countries recently.
The events that preceded the summit all indicated tension, from the killing of Turkish soldiers who were targeted in northern Syria, to the repeated bombing by Russian planes in the Turkish-controlled areas in Idlib, Afrin, and other areas. There was also Assad's recent visit to Moscow, which many saw as a precursor to a possible military operation by the regime in Idlib, the Turkish reinforcements in the north after this visit, and the Turkish president's reiteration in his speech before the UN General Assembly that his country rejects Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Tension is not only clouding the atmosphere of the upcoming summit but has also caused the postponement of a previous summit that was scheduled to be held in August in Russia. This was for reasons related to developments in Afghanistan and Turkey's position on Ukraine, including its sale of drones, and the participation of the Turkish Foreign Minister in the Crimea Platform, which is against Russia's annexation.
As for the agenda of the meeting, it is obvious that the Syrian issue, especially the situation in Idlib, will be front and centre, and it was confirmed by both sides. Russian Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "The agenda [of the talks] will be very broad, beginning with bilateral relations and these are very versatile ties, and the presidents always have something to talk about in this context. Of course, Syria and other regional conflicts will be discussed." The Turkish president said something similar, noting that they would not only be discussing Idlib, but also the bilateral relations and the situation in Syria, what they have reached regarding it, and what they will achieve there in the future.
It is worth noting that both sides prepared for the summit in their own way. Russia sought to heat up the situation in northern Syria, whether by receiving the head of the Syrian regime in Moscow, which is a visit with implications or by ramping up the situation on the ground both directly through its fighters or indirectly through the regime or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Escalating the situation in the field has become a recurring method for Russia to put pressure on Ankara before meetings or at certain points in time.
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Despite Turkey's Foreign Ministry's rejection of the Russian State Duma elections in Crimea, and Erdogan's mention of this in New York, Ankara has paved the way for the summit with strong statements towards the US.
The Turkish president criticised his country's exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet project, accusing the US of insincerity, as well as supporting terrorist organisations, noting that "the state of affairs doesn't bode well," adding, "I worked well with President George W Bush, I worked well with Mr Obama, I worked well with Mr Trump. But I cannot say that we had a good start with Mr Biden." However, the most prominent message was his hinting of his country's desire to buy additional S400 systems from Russia in case his country needs them, and that "In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defence systems we acquire, from which country at what level."
In light of these turbulent signs, fluctuating between positive and negative, it is difficult to be certain of the outcomes of the summit from now, but it is expected that it will be difficult given all of the above, especially since the situation in Idlib is the subject of a great dispute between the two sides. Each side is accusing the other of not upholding the agreements signed between them, including the Sochi agreement and the recent ceasefire.
Accordingly, there will be demands and counter-demands, and Russia may present certain proposals to amend or develop the Sochi agreement or agree on something new regarding Idlib. Turkish media have reported Putin's intention to present a new roadmap regarding Idlib to Erdogan during the meeting.
However, given the absence of major surprises, we do not expect the summit to result in a major breakthrough in the Syrian file, especially with regard to Idlib. Rather, it may have turned into a public relations summit and a means to emphasise what is already known regarding the Syrian issue. This is especially since it is being held at the level of the two presidents only, without the participation of technical-military delegations from both sides.
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As for the Turkish president's talk about his expectation that the upcoming meeting will adopt an "important decision", perhaps it is more related to the bilateral relations between the two countries, which the two sides have succeeded in developing in the last few years, separate from their differences over Syria. These relations have witnessed recent breakthroughs, including the return of Russian tourists to Turkey after the ban that Russia had imposed on trips to Turkey, under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 27 September 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.