Photographer: Sameer al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images

Putin Says Trump Backs Syria Plan, Russia Open to No-Fly Zones

  • Russian leader meets Erdogan to help strengthen Syria truce
  • Russia, Turkey agree to lift almost all trade restrictions

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he secured the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump for a proposal to establish safe zones in Syria which could include a ban on bombing raids.

Putin said after talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday that Russia, Turkey and Iran, which brokered a shaky cease-fire in Syria at the end of last year, have agreed on the need for such areas to cement the truce.

“We spoke about this with Mr. Trump yesterday. As far as I understood, the American administration supports these ideas,” said Putin, who held what the White House described as a “very good” phone call with the U.S. leader on Tuesday.

Russia has long urged the U.S. to join forces with it in Syria. But Trump’s campaign pledge to cooperate with Putin on defeating Islamic State has run into resistance from Republicans and Democrats who are pushing for a harder line toward Moscow over its meddling in the U.S. election, support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and interference in Ukraine.

The Trump-Putin call was the first between the two leaders since tensions erupted over a U.S. missile strike on Syria last month in response to a chemical weapons attack the U.S. says was launched by Assad’s forces. The Syrian president and his Russian allies rejected the accusations.

Protect Civilians

Trump has called for the creation of safe areas inside Syria to protect civilians fleeing the conflict. The Russian initiative would set up four buffer zones patrolled by forces that could include troops from Russia, Turkey and Iran as well as other militaries. The areas would be set up in the northwestern Idlib province, Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria.

“There is a new development here,” Erdogan said after the meeting with Putin. “I am, I have been and I will be defending the idea of safe zones everywhere.”

Putin and Trump agreed during their call to step up efforts to cooperate on resolving the Syria conflict and the fight against terrorism, according to U.S. and Russian statements. The White House statement said there was “a discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones” in Syria during the call, though it didn’t state there was agreement on them.

A senior U.S. diplomat is attending two days of Russian-led talks on Syria that started Tuesday in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, and include discussion of the safe areas.

Syria’s opposition is skeptical about the Russian initiative because of the involvement of Iran, an uncompromising backer of Assad. They’re urging the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers and the creation of no-fly zones.

Halt Bombing

Putin said a halt to bombing could happen inside the safe zones if there is no military activity taking place.

The talks in Astana are “very positive and I’m hopeful we will reach an understanding on this,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Sochi.

While Assad managed to turn the tide of war in his favor after Russia started an air campaign in September 2015, continued fighting between his forces and rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies including Turkey and Saudi Arabia stand in the way of a political settlement. The conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and sent millions more fleeing.

Putin and Erdogan also agreed to lift most trade restrictions that remain after a chill in relations that lasted for months when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in late 2015.

Tomato Ban

Still, Russia will keep in place a ban on Turkish tomato imports for up to three to five years, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said. The market will be “liberalized” as Russian producers complete investments in domestic production, Putin said.

Russia has blocked Turkish tomato imports worth a quarter of a billion dollars a year while Turkey effectively barred Russian grain and other food supplies that have cost Russian exporters up to $1.5 billion, according to estimates cited by the Kommersant newspaper.

A Russian warning against charter flights to Turkey will be revoked, Dvorkovich said.

Relations between Russia and Turkey have returned to normal after the crisis over the downing of the warplane, Putin said. Erdogan said he and “my friend” Putin agreed on all topics except for the ban on tomatoes.

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