Russia and Turkey's foreign ministers met briefly today following a spate of tensions over clashes in Syria's Idlib, where the Syrian army — backed by Russian airpower — has launched an offensive to retake rebel-held territory that has left Turkish troops dead.
On Feb. 14, the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides rejected Turkish claims about the killing of 63 Syrian troops in the Idlib de-escalation zone, calling them “irresponsible."
Earlier, Ankara had said the Turkish military eliminated 63 Syrian government troops “within 24 hours alone."
"Such statements about 'the shelling attacks' on the Syrian government troops by the Turkish armed forces and, all the more so, about casualties among Syrian servicemen as a result of them, have nothing to do with reality," the center, which is part of the Russian Defense Ministry, said.
Why it matters: As the situation on the ground changes rapidly with Damascus determined to capture remaining strategic assests of Idlib province, Moscow and Ankara show no signs of willing to back down from their initial demands. Moreover, while in the recent past Russia preferred not to comment or react to strongly-worded Turkish statements and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats, now both the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministries are striking back with their own criticism of Turkish claims over Ankara’s inability to deliver upon its commitments.
Fair-weather friend? On Friday, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy told Russian TASS media that Ankara was taking “all the necessary steps” to ensure the safety of Russian diplomatic facilities in Turkey. Some in Moscow interpreted it as not so subtle allusion to that Russian position over Idlib finds little sympathy in Turkey and that hard-forged relationship may not survive yet another stress test.
In December 2016, then-Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was shot dead by a 22-year old riot police officer who, according to the Turkish authorities, belonged to the Gulen movement.
"As for the situation surrounding our diplomatic mission to Turkey and our ambassador, we have no doubt that the Turkish authorities will take the necessary measures to ensure the safety of the Russian envoy and all embassy staff members, as well as the personnel of Russian companies and overseas agencies whose offices Turkey hosts in accordance with the Vienna Convention and the spirit of our bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“The situation in Idlib is highly charged. … We believe that this aggravated situation is rooted in Turkey’s neglect for its obligations under the Sochi Memorandum signed on September 17, 2018, and the fact that Ankara is moving the so-called moderate opposition units it controls to northeast Syria, the zone of its Peace Spring Operation and Libya,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Feb. 12.
“Nevertheless, Russia remains committed to the Idlib agreements reached in Astana and is resolved to continue to work jointly [with Turkey] to implement them. Our main current objectives are to bring down the level of violence on the ground, to ensure the safety of the guarantor countries’ military personnel in and around the de-escalation zone, as well as to prevent the aggravation of military confrontation as a result of the ill-considered use of force,” she added, laying out Russia’s negotiating position.
What’s next? On Saturday, Feb. 15, Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu sat down on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference to give Moscow and Ankara a chance to settle the issue over Idlib and prevent the spillover of bilateral disagreements to other areas of the bilateral agenda.
Lavrov also met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif for what the Russian Foreign Minsitry called a "profound exchange of opinions" on Syria.
Know more: See Kirill Semenov’s story on why Turkish demands complicate possible compromises Russia could embrace and listen to the brand-new edition of the Off the Hookah podcast where Phil and Cooper speak with Diego Cupolo.