MOSCOW (AFP) — When Turkey’s president visited Russia last summer, the sun shone as he shared ice cream and admired fighter jets with a friendly Vladimir Putin.
But as Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits Moscow on Thursday, clouds have gathered with the two strongmen in a standoff over Syria.
Fighting has intensified between Turkish troops and Moscow-backed regime forces in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.
Putin and Erdogan are entrenched on opposing sides and determined to hold their ground.
There are hopes the two leaders can at least agree to a ceasefire at the talks. But Erdogan is unlikely to dent the Russian leader’s resolve to back the regime in its offensive to recapture the last rebel stronghold in Syria.
For Putin, observers say, victory in Syria is not just political, it’s personal.
“Putin’s rise as a masterful strategist is associated with Syria,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, which advises the Kremlin.
“Victory in Syria has become a matter of prestige for Russia — and for Putin personally,” he said.
Russia charged into Syria in late 2015 with an air campaign that turned the tide of the conflict in favor of President Bashar al Assad. The intervention helped Assad reclaim swaths of territory his forces had lost to Islamists and Western-backed opposition groups.
Putin, a former KGB agent who described the Soviet Union’s collapse as a catastrophe, spied an opportunity to reclaim the Kremlin’s former military glory and challenge the West.
Moscow has invested heavily in two bases on the Syrian coast — the Tartus naval port and the Hmeimim air base — so that Putin’s warships and bombers can project military power throughout the Mediterranean, said Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.
“Russia is not that interested in Syria per se, but it’s important to keep Assad in power because he guarantees that Russia has these bases,” Felgenhauer said.
Apart from anchoring Moscow’s hold in the Mediterranean, the conflict in Syria has proved a valuable training ground for the military, with thousands of Russian troops gaining battlefield experience and hundreds of new weapons tested, according to Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“It is a material example of what Russia can accomplish through a combination of military and diplomatic instruments,” Trenin said.
The conflict has personal resonance for Putin. He rose to power 20 years ago during the Kremlin’s war against insurgents in the Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya. Putin famously vowed to “waste them in the outhouse.”
Human rights groups have accused the Russian air force of war crimes in Syria, with indiscriminate attacks on schools, hospitals and mosques, drawing comparisons to the destruction of the Chechen capital Grozny two decades ago.
With some 4,000 Russians traveling to join the ranks of Islamist groups in Iraq and Syria in recent years, Putin “has his own scores to settle with the terrorists,” Trenin said.
“He came to prominence, and then to power, by defeating their predecessors in the North Caucasus.”
Putin is also looking for a foreign policy victory that could boost his popularity in the face of approval ratings that have dropped because of economic stagnation.
The last time he scored a major win abroad — the 2014 annexation of Crimea — Putin’s approval ratings in Russia jumped to nearly 90%.
Observers say that doesn’t mean Putin won’t be willing to make some compromise at the Thursday talks with Erdogan.
The two presidents are keen to avoid direct clashes that would jeopardize their trade or defense ties.
“Putin knows he has substantial military and political advantages over Erdogan,” but will find a way to allow the Turkish leader to “back off while saving face,” Trenin said.
Put more bluntly: “Putin is definitely seeking compromise with Turkey over Syria, but a compromise devised by Russia,” Barmin said.
Separately on Thursday, a senior U.S. official in Istanbul called on Europe to support Turkey’s military operation in Syria, where it has lost more than 50 soldiers trying to hold back a Russian-backed offensive on the last rebel stronghold.
“One of the principles that the president and the U.S. Congress share is that there should be a collective effort, not just of Turkey and the U.S. but of our NATO allies, essentially the Europeans,” said the U.S. special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, at a conference in Istanbul.
“We are pressing the Europeans to contribute a great deal,” he said.
The Syrian government, backed by Russian air power, has steadily retaken swaths of Idlib since launching its offensive in December, forcing close to 1 million people from their homes in the biggest displacement of the nine-year civil war. That came after President Trump surprised even his own Defense Department by withdrawing U.S. troops from the war-torn region, opening the door to Russian intervention.
Turkey fears another major influx of refugees, adding to the 3.6 million Syrians it already hosts.
It announced a full operation against Syrian forces after an air strike that killed 34 of its soldiers on Feb. 27.
Turkey has requested greater military support from its NATO partners, and has sought to pressure Europe by removing restrictions on refugees trying to leave its territory for the EU.
NATO has offered solidarity with Turkey, but has yet to take concrete action.
“There’s a Spanish Patriot (missile defense) unit right now deployed in Turkey at the Incirlik airbase; that’s an example of things that NATO is actually doing and we want to see more actions like that,” Jeffrey said.
He acknowledged the situation has been complicated by Turkey’s decision to buy a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, which was strongly opposed by NATO.
“We are looking for ways to work around it but for the moment that is an issue,” Jeffrey said.
© Agence France-Presse