Military analysts believe that the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to Turkey was not scheduled far in advance, even though joint groups of the Russian and Turkish General Staff officers worked in Ankara and Moscow from January 31 till February 2.
In a short joint statement after the talks, Shoigu and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar said that the parties had “agreed on decisive actions to ensure security of the Idlib “de-escalation zone” and joint movement towards full settlement in Syria.” The meeting was held ahead of the negotiations of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Presidents of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran Hasan Rouhani that is taking place in Sochi on February 14, the document emphasized.
The state and prospects of developments in the Idlib “de-escalation zone” are causing increased concern for the Russian military and political leaders. Moscow is determined “not to allow establishment of camps of uncompromising armed militants, preparing military action against government troops, in the region.” According to the commanders of the Russian and Syrian armies, armed gangs of Muslim extremists located in the province of Idlib are accumulating components of poisonous substances, planning to produce chlorine-based chemical weapons and use them against civilians.
Armed anti-government forces violate the ceasefire almost daily, with shooting provocations against Syrian troops and attempted attacks on Russian military bases at Khmeimim and Tartus.
Until now, the Turkish leaders have insisted that “provocations staged by extremists’ gangs cannot be used as an excuse to unleash hostilities in the province of Idlib, [since] it is also home to organizations of “moderate” Syrian opposition and a large number of civilians.”
At the same time, it is necessary to remember that in the six months since the signing of the agreement with Russia in Sochi, Turkey has failed to discharge any of the obligations it undertook except establishment of 12 watch posts along the perimeter of the de-escalation zone.
It is difficult to speculate about the details of the agreements reached between Shoigu and Akar. It is possible that they discussed a peace enforcement operation of Syrian troops among terrorist and extremist groups. Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have consistently advocated use of force against Syrian armed anti-government forces in the northwestern part of the country, but have refrained from implementation of their military plans for a long time in response to Ankara’s request.
It is also quite possible that at the forthcoming talks in Sochi, Presidents Putin and Rouhani will concentrate their efforts on persuading Erdogan not to oppose a military operation in Idlib and use his influence on the groups of Syrian opposition controlled by Turkey in order to prevent them from getting involved in hostilities on the side of terrorists and other radical Islamists.
Ahead of the trilateral meeting, the Russian president will have separate talks with the foreign leaders to discuss bilateral relations and important international matters touching upon their countries’ interests. Ankara and Tehran reasonably hope for Moscow’s aid and support in a number of regional problems.
One can expect the negotiations in Sochi to be difficult and intense. Yet based on preparatory work done, Russia is likely to succeed in convincing its allies in the Syrian settlement that one should be first of all guided by Syria’s interests when resolving its internal political problems.