Putin, Erdogan to meet ahead of Syria deadline

Sochi (Russia) (AFP) –


Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on Tuesday to meet Russia's Vladimir Putin, hours ahead of a deadline for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Syrian border areas or face a renewed Turkish assault.

The two were expected to discuss Turkey's insistence on the creation of a "safe zone" in parts of Syria where Turkish troops have been fighting Kurdish forces.

Ankara has warned that the offensive against the Kurds will resume if they do not withdraw from certain areas by the time a US-brokered ceasefire deal expires on Tuesday night.

Russia -- a crucial ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad -- has demanded that Turkey respect the country's territorial integrity and Putin was likely to seek commitments from Erdogan on Tuesday.

"The most important thing for us is achieving long-term stability in Syria and the region," President Putin's foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov told reporters ahead of the talks.

"We believe this can only be achieved by restoring the unity of Syria."

Russia and Turkey have emerged as the main foreign players in Syria's conflict, with Moscow's position strengthened after US President Donald Trump announced this month he would be withdrawing American forces from the north of the country.

The announcement cleared the way for Turkey to launch a cross-border offensive on October 9 against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, viewed by Ankara as "terrorists" linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Russian forces moved in to replace US troops last week in support of the Syrian army whose help was requested by the Kurds.

- 'Standing by terrorists' -

Erdogan has said Turkey wants a "safe zone" that is 444 kilometres (275 miles) long up to the Iraqi border, but a Turkish military source on Monday said Ankara was looking first at a 120-kilometre (75-mile) zone.

The source said Kurdish fighters should initially withdraw from the area between Tal Abyad, captured by Turkish forces at the start of the offensive, and the town of Ras al-Ain.

Ankara's military action against the People's Protection Units (YPG), who spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, has sparked international outrage.

Erdogan has responded with defiance, accusing Western countries on Monday of "standing by terrorists" in failing to support Turkey's operation.

The PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and is listed as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies.

"Can you imagine the whole West stood by the terrorists and all attacked us including NATO member states and European Union countries?" he said.

After crunch talks with US Vice President Mike Pence last week, Turkey said it would "pause" its military offensive on the condition that Kurdish fighters retreated from the "safe zone".

The source on Monday said the deal would run out at 10:00 pm (1900 GMT) on Tuesday, vowing that Ankara would crack down on "any terrorists left" in the area after the deadline expires.

Trump said on Monday that a small number of US troops remain in Syria, adding to an already confused situation.

He said the contingents were near Israel and Jordan -- at their request -- and also guarding oil fields.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Monday saying Paris wanted to see an extension of the ceasefire.

"The president underscored the importance of prolonging the current ceasefire, and of ending the crisis with diplomatic means," the French presidency said after a phone call between the two leaders.