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Putin and Erdogan speak on Syria ceasefire

Russian President Putin and Turkish Erdogan had a further telephone conversation today, in what has now become a regular series of such calls.

I believe I am right in saying that Putin and Erdogan spoke to each other more often than any two other world leaders in the second half of 2016, and that they speak to each other more often than either of them does to any other world leader (Putin also speaks regularly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel; he probably also speaks regularly to Chinese President Xi Jinping, but it is likely that the majority of these calls are kept secret).

Regardless of what private feelings Putin and Erdogan have for each other, this is a very intense dialogue, and they must know each other very well by now.

The Kremlin’s summary of the telephone conversation shows that the two discussed the conflict in Syria, and that they are broadly satisfied with the situation there

The two leaders focused on the situation in Syria. They pointed out that the ceasefire agreements reached between the Syrian Government and the moderate opposition through the mediation of Russia and Turkey have been mostly complied with and agreed to continue their joint efforts to prepare the intra-Syrian talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.

They also discussed bilateral issues, including the full revival of trade and economic ties and holding a meeting of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council, which is co-chaired by the two heads of state, in the near future.

The relative success – so far – of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire plan is in stark contrast to the utter failure of the Kerry-Lavrov ceasefire plans of February and September 2016.

It is important to say that Syria is not at peace.  Fighting still continues near Damascus.  The Jihadis appear to have gone back on their promise to quit Wadi Barada, and water supplies from there to Damascus are still being disrupted.  Al-Qaeda remains in control of Idlib province, including the provincial capital, and fighting is continuing in the countryside south west of Aleppo.  In the north east the Turkish army is still fighting ISIS at Al-Bab, and is still in conflict with the Kurdish YPG militia, which confusingly is still engaged in a three cornered with ISIS.  Further east and south, the conflict between the Syrian army and ISIS near Palmyra and Deir Ezzor continues undiminished, with reports of the Syrian army continued to make gains in the countryside west of Palmyra, and of ISIS launching more attacks on Deir Ezzor.

As for the peace conference in Astana, there is no news yet of when it will convene or of who will attend, though there are reports of Turkish anger as the US continues to lobby for the Kurdish YPG militia to be given a place at the UN’s ongoing (and stalemated) Syrian peace conference in Geneva.  One of the attractions for the Turks of Putin’s proposed peace conference is that it will almost certainly exclude the YPG.

Meanwhile there are reports that Erdogan has arranged a meeting in Turkey of the various Jihadi groups in Syria which Turkey backs in order to try to get them to come together into a single umbrella group.  This could be so that they can present a united front in Astana.  However it also seems to be an attempt to increase Turkish control over them (controlling Jihadi groups being rather like herding cats), and possibly in order to strengthen the Turkish backed Jihadis on the ground in Syria in case the present ceasefire breaks down.

The Jihadi meeting in Turkey is therefore a sign that Erdogan has still not fully given up his plans for Syria.

The ultimate test for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria is not the present ceasefire.  It is whether Turkey is prepared to stop reinforcements and supplies going to the various Jihadis groups in Syria across the Turkish border.  Until a few weeks ago that traffic was undiminished, and there are no reports so far that it has ended.

Almost certainly that is the main subject of discussion between the Russians and the Turks at the present time, though it is probable that Putin and Erdogan only touched on it in their latest conversation and that most of the detailed discussions are going on between Turkish military intelligence in Ankara and the Russian military command at the Russia’s Syrian air base in Khmeimim.

In the meantime earlier reports that the Russians have actually reinforced their air group at the Khmeimim air base have proved to be wrong.  It seems that with the fall off in the fighting following the ceasefire the Russians have withdrawn their SU24 bombers from Khmeimim air base and have partially replaced them with lighter SU25 ground attack aircraft.   The more sophisticated aircraft at Khmeimim air base – the SU34 fighter bombers and the SU35 fighters – are however all still there.   As the Kremlin’s summary of the conversation between Putin and Erdogan shows, the Russians are guardedly optimistic but are keeping their powder dry.

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