The leaders of Turkey and Russia will meet in Moscow in a bid to agree a deal that avoids further escalation of conflict in Syria.
Faced with mounting losses of his troops in Syria’s Idlib province and a potential wave of refugees fleeing the fighting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager for a ceasefire, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin is ready to bargain.
With a looming new migration crisis at Europe’s borders, all eyes will be on Moscow, where the two main power brokers in Syria will see if they can hammer out yet another deal carving up northern Syria, tailored to their own agendas.
Whatever deal they can work out, it is likely to only bring a temporary halt in the punishing Moscow-backed onslaught by the military of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which threatens continued suffering for the three million people trapped in Idlib.
Vladimir Frolov, an independent Russian foreign affairs analyst, said: “The main problem in Idlib is the desire of Assad to establish full control of the area and block the border with Turkey, while also having pushed three million of the Sunni population, unfriendly to Assad, out onto Turkish soil.”
The fight in Idlib, the last opposition-controlled region of Syria, has already been catastrophic for the population. Nearly a million people have fled their homes since December 1, when the latest government offensive began, in the biggest single wave of displacement since Syria’s civil war began nine years ago. With nowhere to go, many have gathered at the border with Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has refused to let new ones in.
It has also brought Turkey, a Nato member, dangerously close to war with Russia.
In the past month, Syrian and Turkish troops have repeatedly clashed on the ground and in the skies, killing scores on both sides. For Turkey, which sent thousands of troops to Syria in the past few weeks, the intervention has been disastrous with 58 Turkish troops killed in the past month, including 33 in one air strike last week.
Mr Erdogan has opened Turkey’s borders with Greece, declaring he would no longer hold back migrants and refugees wishing to go to Europe. Some European leaders have accused him of using refugees to blackmail the West into backing Turkey.
Analysts say the move showed Mr Erdogan’s desperation, especially after failing to get the desired assistance from Nato, and is likely to backfire as dramatic scenes reminiscent of the 2015 migrant crisis play out at the gates of Europe.
As his isolation deepens, Mr Erdogan is likely to settle for less than what he aspires to at the talks. Asked about his expectations, he told reporters that the main topic will be to “rapidly achieve a ceasefire in the region”.
Moscow also appears keen on restoring some kind of status quo in Idlib.
Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We expect to reach a shared view of the cause of the current crisis, its consequences and agree on a set of measures to overcome it.”