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Vladimir Putin meets Turkey’s Erdogan as Russia advocates Syria ‘safe zones’

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-05-2017 Henry Meyer

Moscow/Sochi: Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his diplomatic push for a plan to establish safe zones in Syria backed by peacekeepers as he began talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday.

Russia and Turkey can “change the destiny of the whole region” together, Erdogan told Putin, who said relations between the two countries are acquiring a special status. The meeting is taking place a day after Putin discussed the plan for safe zones with US President Donald Trump in what the White House described as a “very good” phone call.

Putin and Trump agreed to step up efforts to cooperate on resolving the Syria conflict and the fight against terrorism, according to US and Russian statements. A senior US diplomat is attending two days of Russia-led talks on Syria that started on Tuesday in Kazakhstan and include discussion of the safe areas.

Syria’s opposition is sceptical about the Russian initiative, which calls for the creation of four buffer zones patrolled by forces that could include troops from Russia, Turkey and Iran. The areas would be set up in the northwestern Idlib province, Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria.

The talks on the safe areas taking place in the Kazakh capital, Astana, are “very positive and I’m hopeful we will reach an understanding on this,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

UN peacekeepers

Opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad want United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed. That’s an idea rejected by the Syrian government, pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia reported on Wednesday, citing a ruling party legislator in Damascus, Sadji Taama.

In a sign of the difficulties in brokering a solution, the opposition delegation on Wednesday suspended its participation in the Astana talks because of “unending bombardment” by government forces and their allies, a senior opposition member, Yayha al-Aridi, said.

Russia has long urged the US to join forces with it in Syria but Trump’s campaign pledge to cooperate with Putin on defeating the Islamic State has run into resistance from Republicans and Democrats, who are pushing for a harder line towards Moscow over its meddling in the US election, support for Assad and interference in Ukraine.

The Trump-Putin call was the first between the two leaders since tensions erupted over a US missile strike on Syria last month in response to a chemical weapons attack the US government says was launched by Assad’s forces. The Syrian president and his Russian allies rejected the accusations.

Trade restrictions

While Assad managed to turn the tide of war in his favor after Russia started an air campaign in September 2015, continued fighting between his forces and rebels backed by the US and its allies including Turkey and Saudi Arabia stand in the way of a political settlement. The conflict has killed an estimated 4,00,000 people and sent millions more fleeing.

Erdogan said on Tuesday in Ankara that he also plans to discuss the issue of visas with Putin. Russia and Turkey remain at odds over trade restrictions after a chill in relations that lasted for months when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in late 2015.

Russia continues to block Turkish tomato imports worth a quarter of a billion dollars a year while Turkey has effectively barred Russian grain and other food supplies that have cost Russian exporters up to $1.5 billion, according to estimates cited by the Kommersant newspaper. Putin and Erdogan may discuss grain supplies to Turkey at the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

The two leaders may also discuss the possible supply of Russia’s advanced S-400 missile-defence system to Turkey, according to Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov.

Putin discussed Syria along with other issues with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi on Tuesday. Merkel visited Saudi Arabia on Sunday in her capacity as the chair of the Group of 20, which will hold its annual leaders’ summit in Hamburg in July. Bloomberg

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