The Syria plan the pair agreed on sounds a lot more like Erdogan's ideas for Syria but is actually the same scheme Russia has been proposing all along
Hosting Erdogan in Sochi Putin told the press afterwards that Russian-Turkish relations are now fully recovered.
Sure enough the pair voiced support for establishment of "de-escalation zones" that would cover the four major rebel-held enclaves (Idlib, Homs, Ghouta, Darayya) which sounds a lot like the "safe zones" Erdogan has been talking up for a while. Except that under the hood of these "de-escalation zones" lies the deal Russians had for rebels and their backers all along:
The proposal also says rebel groups would be required to fight the Islamic State and the formerly Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, now called Tahrir al-Sham, which are not part of any peace process.
Rebels get a no-fly zone and become legitimate opposition, but only if they take on al-Qaeda, or at least sit idly while the Syrian army and the Russian air force deals with them.
This is the same deal they have rejected with US and Turkish encouragement numerous times in the past. It is eerily similar to the Lavrov-Kerry deal of September 2016 which then the Pentagon sabotaged by bombing to pieces a hundred Syrian soldiers in the ISIS-encircled city of Deir ez-Zoir.
It is a great deal for Damascus which was quick to express support. It means that rebels must sit tight and observe a cease-fire while the government eradicates Tahrir al-Sham which represents close to one half of the fighting strength of the rebellion. Once that is accomplished they get final peace talks, but by that time their leverage will be even less than it is now.
It is a big thing for Russia that Erdogan now agrees that al-Qaeda must be defeated, especially if he will actually stick by his words (which is not something he is known for). So it is understandable that Putin in return claims the relations are now as good as they ever were. That is not necessarily a terribly high bar to clear however.
Indeed Erdogan probably left Sochi in a less than ecstatic mood. Just days ago Russian troops ended his probing attacks against the Syrian Kurds in the Afrin enclave. Erdogan made it a point to tell the media he had shown Putin pictures of Russian soldiers fraternizing with the Kurdish YPG militias which Turkey demonizes as terrorists. (The photos which Russians took deliberately and RI readers saw this Tuesday.)
Clearly Erdogan was not happy that Russians inserted themselves between him and the YPG, but it is also clear Moscow doesn't particularly care, or it wouldn't have ordered the mission just days before Erdogan was due to arrive.
In return for backstabbing his al-Qaeda proteges Erdogan no doubt wants assurances that Syrian Kurds get as little as possible in the post-war settlement, but Russians won't go as far as to allow him to take matters into his own hands. They don't want him destabilizing a difficult situation further, nor do they want an outspoken regime-changer pushing any further into Syria – whatever the pretext.
In the run-up to the summit the Turkish side claimed they were hoping a deal to for Turkey to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system would be finalized. We said this was highly unlikely. Indeed the Russian side only made the faintest acknowledgment that the issue was discussed but mentioned no progress at all:
The deliveries of Russia’s advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Turkey were discussed at a meeting of Russian and Turkish Presidents Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.
"This theme was touched upon, like other issues related to military and technical cooperation," Peskov said.
"Military and technical cooperation was discussed in a positive tone," the Kremlin spokesman said.
Erdogan left Sochi with less reason for joy than Putin, but then again Putin did not get more than promises either.
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