Moscow (CNSNews.com) – Russia and Turkey have agreed to a new ceasefire in northwestern Syria, the site in recent weeks of numerous clashes between Turkish and Russian-backed Assad regime forces.
Under the ceasefire deal, announced following a six-hour meeting in Moscow between President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all hostilities between Turkish and Assad regime forces are to cease at midnight on Friday.
The agreement also stipulated the establishment of a six-kilometer-wide security corridor north and south of the strategic M4 highway, which connects eastern Syria with the country’s coastal region. Beginning March 15, Russian and Turkish troops will conduct joint patrols along the highway.
At a joint press conference with Erdogan, Putin touted the agreement as evidence that Russia and Turkey could work together in Syria despite backing different sides.
“We do not always agree with our Turkish partners when evaluating what is happening in Syria, but to this day, in each critical moment, we have managed to find points of contact on emerging disputed issues and reach mutually acceptable solutions by relying on the high level of bilateral relations,” he said.
The ceasefire deal comes after months of growing tensions between Russia and Turkey over Idlib, the last remaining stronghold of anti-Assad rebels in the country.
In December, the regime launched an offensive there with Russian air support. Its forces made significant gains, seizing control of the M4 highway and several towns near the provincial capital.
But the campaign sent a new wave of Syrian refugees heading for the Turkish border, with the United Nations estimating that 900,000 people have been displaced since the offensive began.
Turkey, which backs the rebels, protested that the offensive violated its 2018 agreement with Russia, which established a de-escalation zone in Idlib.
For its part, Russia accuses Turkey of failing to honor its promise to clear the zone of jihadist groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is the one of the primary opposition groups fighting in Idlib.
Ankara responded to Assad’s offensive by sending thousands of soldiers and military vehicles to Idlib to reinforce the rebels. Erdogan warned that if the regime troops did not withdraw, he would launch a military operation to push them out of Idlib.
Turkish and pro-Assad forces exchanged fire numerous times in Idlib, and last Thursday, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in a regime airstrike in the province, bringing to 54 the total Turkish loss of life over the past month.
Shortly after the airstrike, Turkey launched an operation against Assad forces, using drones and artillery to push them back and allowing rebel groups to regain some territory. Turkey’s Defense Ministry also claims to have shot down three regime warplanes.
Russia, in turn, reacted by sending several warships to the coast of Syria and warning that it would not guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft flying over Syria.
As he greeted Erdogan ahead of their talks on Thursday, Putin acknowledged that tensions had reached a critical point.
“The situation in the Idlib zone in Syria has deteriorated so much that we need to have a direct and personal discussion,” he told the Turkish president.
Amid the crisis, Turkey late last month asked the U.S. to supply it with the Patriot missile system and to conduct air patrols near the border between Syria and Turkey.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the State Department on Thursday that the United States regarded Turkey’s military operation in Idlib as an act of self-defense.
"We believe firmly that our NATO partner Turkey has the full right to defend itself against the risk that’s being created by what Assad, the Russians, and the Iranians are doing inside of Syria,” he said.
Pompeo said the administration was currently “evaluating all of” the Turkish government’s requests.