MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Thursday with Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan over a potential ceasefire in northern Syria and offered condolences over the recent killing of Turkish soldiers there.
Putin, speaking beside Erdogan at the start of talks, said the situation in Idlib province, where their armies are facing off in a war that has displaced nearly a million people in three months, had become so tense it required one-on-one talks.
Erdogan said he hoped the meeting, which was initiated by Putin, would agree measures to ease the conflict.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials in a meeting still underway at 1430 GMT.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters the two were likely to finally agree a ceasefire, after weeks of diplomacy failed to halt fighting between Turkey and allied Syrian rebels and Russian-backed Syrian government forces.
“Political diplomacy will be more determinant today than military diplomacy,” the official said prior to the talks.
Russian air strikes have propelled a push by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to retake the last large rebel-held territory in the northwest.
That has sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in a nine-year war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.
The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.
It complained in the run-up to the talks of the role it says Turkish observation posts in Idlib play in helping rebels launch attacks on civilian settlements and a Russian air base.
Flight data and shipping movements show Russia raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.
Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and avoid a wave of refugees over its southern border.
The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.
Putin on Thursday expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian army had not known of their location. He said he hoped their talks would help avoid a repeat of that situation.
A Turkish security official said overnight clashes were “low in intensity for the first time in a while” ahead of the Moscow meeting, but Idlib residents reported heavy shelling by Turkish troops and air strikes by Russian and Syrian forces.
At least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of internally displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.
The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.
Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. To extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said it would not abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.
European Council President Charles Michel said on Thursday he had spoken to Putin by phone and called for a sustainable Idlib ceasefire.