A high-level Turkish delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal visited Moscow today for talks over key issues that have come to dominate bilateral relations in recent weeks. The delegation also included top defense, intelligence and national security officials.
Why it matters: The visit comes as Russian-backed Syrian forces gained ground in Idlib as a result of a weekslong offensive. The Syrian army claims it gained more than 20 villages and hilltops in the last rebel-held province and is approaching one of 12 Turkish observation posts in Syria’s northwest. This is the biggest such assault in more than three months. The push reportedly triggered a large civilian exodus. On Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could not handle a new influx of refugees and urged Moscow to stop its strikes. Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
Speaking at a launch ceremony for Turkey’s latest submarine, Erdogan also pledged to increase military support for the internationally recognized government of Libya “if necessary.” He added that Ankara would evaluate “ground, air and marine options.” Al-Monitor reported earlier about simmering disagreements between Turkey and Russia in Libya. Turkey and Russia reportedly deploy private military contractors to support, respectively, the Fayez al-Sarraj government and eastern strongman Khalifa Hifter.
Friend in need: On Dec. 11 and Dec. 17, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin had two phone conversations. On the issue of Syria, the major takeaway was that the parties agreed to increase coordinated efforts to fight the terrorist threat, including in Idlib province and in the country’s northeast. As for Libya, Moscow said its proposals revolve around a prompt cease-fire and the resumption of intra-Libyan peace talks. Remarkably, while Russia and Turkey expressed support for the UN and Germany’s mediation efforts to end the armed conflict, both reaffirmed their willingness “to assist in establishing inter-Libyan contacts.”
“Russia is ready to make a significant contribution, as it maintains contact with all active political forces,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said after the second Putin-Erdogan conversation.
What’s next: Putin is expected to visit Turkey Jan. 8. The Russian and Turkish leaders will launch the TurkStream natural gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey and discuss Syria, the delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system and the situation in Libya.
Two sources in the Russian Foreign and Defense ministries who spoke with Al-Monitor alluded to a potentially “important initiative” on Libya that the two countries may jointly launch following the presidential meeting.