Erdogan-Putin to talk Syria in Moscow: is policy change on the cards?

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Syria is going to be top of the agenda ahead of his visit to Moscow where he will meet with President Putin.

Speaking live on Turkey’s state-run TV channel TRT, Erdogan said, “Russia and Turkey are currently occupying important roles in Syria. The US-led coalition has a significant role. We will evaluate the points agreed on by the three chiefs of staff,” referring to the joint meeting by Turkish, American and Russian Generals in Turkey on Tuesday.

Speaking about Manbij, the northern Syrian town at the centre of recent diplomatic and military debate, Erdogan said, “We cannot only talk of a humanitarian issue. Our stance from the outset has been that whoever the real owners of Manbij are, they should be the ones to settle there.”

“The occupying forces there must retreat back to the east of the Euphrates river,” Erdogan insisted, referring to the Kurdish YPG forces who helped liberate Manbij from the Islamic State group last year, and who have since left the town to a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters called the Manbij Military Council (MMC).

After Turkish officials, including president Erdogan himself, had declared that Manbij was the next target of the Euphrates Shield operation after al-Bab, clashes broke out between the MMC and the Turkish-backed FSA factions to the west of the town.

The Manbij Military Council then made a statement last week saying it had reached an agreement with Russia to transfer the defence of the line to the west of Manbij (Arima) to Syrian government forces.

With Russia in Syria to support the Assad government and Turkey supporting Assad’s adversaries, it is hard to see any strategic decision coming out of tomorrow’s meeting between the two presidents that will have a significant impact on the battleground.

The Turkish government’s priorities have evolved somewhat over the past six years; with impeding Kurdish aspirations in northern Syria seemingly the only remaining priority, as even Assad’s removal of power is only mentioned as a mere preference rather than a necessity.

However, with multiple powers at play in Syria, the Kurds have been able to pick and choose between allies, an unprecedented luxury in recent Kurdish history. This has been most evident in Manbij, where if the USA shows a reluctance to step up to protect the town from Turkish targeting, the Russians have shown they are more than happy to step in.

With developments on the battleground limiting Turkey’s manoeuvrability in Syria, Erdogan is realising that rather than a decision-influencing actor, he has become a petitioning side-player, raising concerns with the actual decision-makers in Syria.