Despite handshakes, disagreement over Syria lingers

Sunday 14/08/2016

Washington - Following angry exchang­es with its Western al­lies, Turkey signalled an eagerness to repair ties with Russia but the con­tinuing clash of interests over Syr­ia is likely to slow moves towards a closer alliance between Ankara and Moscow.

After a, August 9th meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he wanted to heal ties with Turkey. Nine months ago, rela­tions plunged into crisis when a Turkish fighter jet downed a Rus­sian warplane along the Syrian border.

Russian economic sanctions against Turkey will be lifted and Putin said both countries were determined to find a solution in Syria, where the leaders support opposing sides.

Erdogan said both sides were “extremely determined” to work for a full restoration of ties, in­cluding an increase in bilateral trade from $30 billion annually to $100 billion. The two lead­ers agreed to pursue the Turkish Stream pipeline project, which would deliver Russian natural gas to Europe. Turkey and Russia also agreed to create a joint invest­ment fund and to cooperate in defence matters.

All of this sparks concerns in Europe and the United States that Turkey, an EU aspirant and the only predominantly Muslim NATO member, could move from its Western moorings. Ahead of his meeting with Putin, Erdogan bitterly complained about what Turkey sees as the West’s failure to support his regime following the unsuccessful coup attempt in July.

The pro-government media in Turkey suggested that Europeans and Americans want to weaken Turkey and that it is time for Ankara to look for support else­where.

“There are no more common values left between Turkey and the EU,” wrote Ibrahim Karagul, editor of the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak newspaper. The newspaper Daily Sabah said in an editorial that “it is natural to doubt the re­liability of allies and alliances that fail to stand by Turkey in its hour of need”.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey ana­lyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Russia is using the mood in Turkey to its advantage. “Russia sees this as a major strategic opportunity,” Ca­gaptay told CNN. He said Putin’s aim was to “bring Turkey into Russia’s fold”.

Putin was the first major world leader to meet Erdogan since the coup attempt and, unlike the European Union and the United States, Russia has not criticised the Turkish leader over his crack­down following the coup. After meeting Erdogan, Putin said Rus­sia was “against all types of coup attempts”.

By reconciling with Putin, Er­dogan may be warning the West. Ankara is “flirting [with Russia] to make [the] West nervous”, How­ard Eissenstat, a Turkey specialist at St Lawrence University in New York, wrote on Twitter. Moscow’s Pravda newspaper said a Turkish- Russian alliance was the “EU’s nightmare”.

Turkish officials stressed that a normalisation in trade and tour­ism did not mean that Ankara was abandoning its Western partners. “Our relations with Russia are not an alternative to other rela­tions,” Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek told the Hurriyet Daily News. “We have multi-di­mensional relationships. We are a member of NATO. We are an EU accession candidate.”

Ultimately, the conflict in Syria will determine how far the Russo- Turkish thaw can go, observers said. Beyond expressing a will to work together in Syria, the St Pe­tersburg meeting did not produce specific policy proposals beyond an announcement to improve communication.

Following the warplane inci­dent, Ankara accused Russia of bombing Syrian rebel positions to help Syrian President Bashar Assad and Moscow accused An­kara of supporting radical Islamic groups in Syria. Now Erdogan says it is time to work with Rus­sia. “I think we have to solve this thing by Russia and Turkey taking steps together,” he told Turkish state broadcaster TRT.

After the visit, Turkey sent dip­lomats, military officials and in­telligence representatives to Mos­cow to explore Syria options with their Russian counterparts.

Members of Erdogan’s govern­ment concede it will be difficult to find common ground over Syria. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavu­soglu said after the St Petersburg visit that Turkey and Russia had “different thoughts” about how a Syrian ceasefire could be secured and noted that Turkey was not happy with Russian warplanes targeting “the moderate opposi­tion”.