Putin says establishment of deescalation zones would strengthen the ceasefire in Syria
Russia and Turkey have restored bilateral ties strained by the downing of a Russian plane in 2015
Russia and Turkey are in favor of creating “de-escalation” zones in Syria in order to “cement” a ceasefire in the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday at a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“One of the ways of strengthening the ceasefire is to set up these de-escalation zones and that was also voiced by US President Donald Trump. We have discussed that and as far as I understand the US administration is supporting that idea,” Putin said, following talks with Erdogan in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
Erdogan said that a new conflict-free zone would be set up in the Idlib area. Such zones are meant to be areas where civilians can live without being targeted by any party in Syria’s war.
Putin and US President Donald Trump had their first phone conversation Tuesday since Trump ordered missile strikes against a Syrian air base last month. The US strikes were in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Syrian town that was widely blamed on the Syrian regime.
Trump and Putin discussed Trump’s proposal to create safe zones, according to a White House readout of their call. They also agreed that “the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence.”
Opposition cite ceasefire violations
Participants in a new round of Syrian ceasefire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan have discussed the memorandum on de-escalation zones in Syria, Kazakh Foreign Ministry official Aidarbek Tumatov said on Wednesday, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
But earlier, the Syrian opposition delegation walked out of the talks over what it described as continued regime violations of the ceasefire, a member of the High Negotiation Committee representing the opposition told CNN.
The delegation released a two-page document accusing the regime of continuing to bombard and advance into areas in violation of a ceasefire agreement signed December 30, 2016.
The document accuses Russia of not fulfilling its role as a guarantor of the agreement. “The continuation of this bombing will destroy the entire process,” it read.
Russia is working on a proposal that would see peacekeepers separating four opposition-held areas in Syria from regime forces, a former member of the High Negotiation Committee told CNN.
These four opposition pockets would be in the south, around Idlib, around Homs, and near Damascus, the source said. Civilians would be able to move freely in and out of these zones, the source added.
Bilateral relations restored
After the meeting – their second in as many months – Putin and Erdogan agreed formally to restore bilateral ties between their countries and restore trade and services that had been impacted by restrictions imposed by either side.
“Turkey is a very important partner. Bilateral relations have been tested in the recent past, but are now back on track,” said Putin.
Relations between the two nations soured after Turkey’s air force shot down a Russian jet at the Syrian-Turkish border in November 2015, triggering a year of tumultuous diplomacy and economic sanctions. But in recent months, the two leaders have shown greater unity as they’ve emerged as significant powers in the Syrian conflict.
Turkey also is increasingly looking to Russia as an ally as Ankara’s relations with the West worsen.
The Kremlin has worked closely with Erdogan to negotiate ceasefires and bring about a potential diplomatic solution to the Syria conflict, despite the two countries holding very different ideas on the future role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and differing priorities on the ground.
Putin’s priorities include consolidating Russia’s leading role in Syria, preserving a delicate entente with Turkey in leading the Syrian “peace process,” and continuing to try to coax it away from Europe and NATO as part of a broader strategy of weakening the Western alliance. Russian support has been key to keeping Assad in power.
Erdogan’s focus, meanwhile, is on promoting Turkey’s interests in Syria, if possible at the expense of the Kurds, and on securing a role in the offensive against Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in Syria. He wants Assad out and also to put the US on notice that there are alternatives to American leadership in the region.
Putin’s talks with Erdogan came a day after he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi, as Berlin-Moscow relations remain stuck at a low over the Ukraine crisis and Syrian war.
CNN’s Lindsay Isaac, Eyad Kourdi and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.