ISTANBUL // Turkey will try to soften Russia's stout support for Syria's embattled government during a one-day visit by president Vladimir Putin today.
Mr Putin is to meet Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. The two leaders last met in Moscow in July and have spoken on the telephone several times since.
Mr Erdogan, whose country is demanding an end of the rule of Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, said before the visit he would try to convince Mr Putin to distance himself from the Syrian government. Such a move by Russia, Syria's strongest ally, would be a huge blow to the Assad regime.
"Right now, the key is in Russia's hands," Mr Erdogan said during a visit to Spain last week.
"If the UN Security Council were to act on Syria, sanctions would follow," he added, in reference to Russia's veto of UN actions against Damascus. "We will talk about these issues" during Mr Putin's visit, he said.
Mr Erdogan's attempts to change Mr Putin's mind is part of a wider effort by Turkey to increase international pressure on Damascus.
Ban Ki Moon, the UN general secretary, is expected to arrive in Turkey on Friday for a two-day visit, during which he will hold talks in Ankara and tour a Turkish camp for Syrian refugees.
Also in the coming days, Nato is expected to formally approve a Turkish request to deploy anti-missile defence systems along its long border with Syria.
Ankara's initiative is driven by a growing sense of urgency as the war in Syria grinds on.
The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey could reach 200,000 soon, according to official estimates. About 130,000 Syrians are being sheltered in refugee camps in the border region, with an additional 40,000 living outside the camps in Turkey. Another 25,000 Syrians are waiting on the border, officials estimate.
Mr Erdogan said a change in Russia's Syria policy would force Iran, the second-most important partner of Damascus on the international stage, to follow suit.
"If Russia is taking a positive approach, Iran will also reconsider its position," said Mr Erdogan.
Ahmet Davutoglu and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia, are scheduled to meet for talks on Syria on the sidelines of Mr Putin's visit.
The Turkish government is unsure about how far Russia might be willing to go in distancing itself from the Assad government, but Mr Davutoglu has hinted that he sees a shift in the Russian position.
Turkey and Russia agreed that there should be a political change in Damascus, but disagreed over whether this change should take place with or without Mr Al Assad, Mr Davutoglu said in October.
Heirs to former empires that were traditional rivals in the Caucasus and in eastern Europe for centuries, Turkey and Russia have enjoyed a marked improvement in relations and trade in recent years.
Russia provides 60 per cent of Turkey's natural gas and 35 per cent of its oil imports and is building Turkey's first nuclear reactor, while more than three million Russian tourists have been flocking to Turkey's beaches every year. One hotel in the Turkish resort of Antalya has been built as a replica of Moscow's Kremlin.
But relations have been complicated by opposing positions on the conflict in Syria, where the Assad government has been trying to crush an uprising that started almost two years ago.
Turkey has expressed frustration with Russia's decision to shield Damascus from tough international steps by using its veto in the UN Security Council.
Russia in turn has criticised Turkey's request for Nato Patriot anti-missile defence systems.
Tensions were further heightened by Turkey's decision to force a Syrian passenger plane flying from Moscow to Damascus to land in Ankara in October because of intelligence reports that the aircraft was carrying military equipment for Syrian government troops.
Vladimir Ivanovski, Russia's ambassador to Turkey, said on Friday that the cargo on the Syrian plane consisted of spare parts for a radar system used by a Syrian air defence unit, which were being returned to Damascus after being repaired in Russia.
He struck a conciliatory note, saying that the issue would not be discussed during Mr Putin's visit and should be "closed", according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency.
Mr Putin was originally scheduled to visit Turkey in October, but postponed his trip. Mr Erdogan said at the time the rescheduling had nothing to do with the row over the Syrian plane.
Ankara is keen to avoid any open confrontation with Russia, given Moscow's towering position as an energy supplier.
In a sign of Ankara's efforts to avoid tensions with Russia, a Turkish foreign ministry official played down Russian criticism of the planned deployment of Nato Patriots, insisting the deployment of the missile batteries was a purely defensive step to deter possible attacks on Turkish territory from Syria.
"It is not directed against anyone," the official said. "No one should feel uncomfortable."
An advance team of about 30 experts from Nato countries and the Turkish military have inspected several possible sites for the deployment of the Patriots, which could come from Nato partners Germany and the Netherlands. Once Nato gives the green light, the missile-defence units could be in Turkey within weeks.
Turkey requested the Patriot systems after artillery shells were fired from Syria into Turkey, killing five civilians in October.