Erdogan courts the West as Russia ties show signs of strain

Video of Turkish leader in Moscow described as "humiliation show."
Sunday 15/03/2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, stands with European Council President Charles Michel. (AP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, stands with European Council President Charles Michel. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Despite recent sharp exchanges with European leaders about the refugee issue, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is starting to repair relations with the West, as Ankara’s ties with Russia show further signs of strain.

Erdogan travelled to EU headquarters in Brussels for the first time in years and announced a summit with the leaders of Germany and France for March 18 in Istanbul.

Even though the new migration crisis, triggered after Erdogan opened Turkey’s western borders for migrants attempting to reach Europe, remained unresolved, the Turkish leader said a “new era” in relations between Turkey and the European Union was possible.

The United States, keen to exploit the growing rift between Turkey and Russia over Syria, said it was discussing with its NATO allies what they can offer Turkey in terms of military assistance in the Syrian province of Idlib and discussing measures that may be taken if Russia and the Syrian government break a ceasefire there.

“We are looking at what NATO can do,” James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria, said during a conference call briefing from Brussels where he was meeting with allies.

Jeffrey ruled out the use of ground troops should the ceasefire in Idlib be broken and repeated that Ankara needed to clarify its stance on purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system.

Erdogan hammered out the new ceasefire deal for Idlib during a meeting March 5 with Russian President Vladimir Putin but the agreement forced Turkey to accept recent territorial gains by the Russia-backed Syrian Army. Turkish state media said the Syrian side has violated the truce.

Anti-Russian feelings in Turkey were fanned by the broadcast of a video on Russian television that showed a tense-looking Erdogan and his delegation left waiting in a side room of the Kremlin before being received by Putin.

Talking on his way back to Turkey from Brussels, Erdogan called the widely shared video an example of “media manipulation” but said the clip would not hurt Turkish-Russian relations.

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Turkish-Russian relations, said the video on a Russian state channel had been a “disrespectful message” sent with full knowledge of the Russian leadership. “The Kremlin knew about the show,” Has said via e-mail.

“The publication of such a video shows how much Russia is annoyed at Turkish President Erdogan’s latest threats against Syrian and indirectly [against] Russian counterparts on the Idlib issue,” Has said.

Has added that the Kremlin appeared to view itself in a strong position towards Turkey. Russia expected “that the humiliating show will be unrequited and Ankara wouldn’t be able to respond strongly.”

Erdogan said he asked Putin to jointly manage oil fields in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor region in place of the Kurdish-led forces, which control them now. He said Putin was evaluating the offer. He said he could make the same offer to US President Donald Trump.

Deir ez-Zor province is south of a 30km border zone that Turkish troops captured in October from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Turkey says is a terrorist group threatening its security. The US-backed YPG controls most of Syria’s eastern oil regions.

While he is looking for a new agreement with the European Union to replace a 2016 deal that said Turkey would get more than $6 billion in aid in return for a pledge to stop Syrian refugees from crossing to EU member Greece, Erdogan said he would not close the border again for refugees. His decision to open the gates February 28 sparked sharp criticism from Europe but Erdogan has kept to his position in an apparent effort to retain bargaining power in upcoming talks with EU leaders.

Tens of thousands of refugees, many from Afghanistan and Syria, drove to the border after Erdogan’s decision but Greek border police have prevented most of them from entering their country.

Turkey hosts some 4 million refugees -- most of them Syrians -- and is demanding greater EU assistance in dealing with the conflict in Syria and its humanitarian consequences. European leaders have held open the possibility of additional financial aid for Turkey but warned that no money would be forthcoming while Turkey kept its western border open for migrants.

Erdogan’s government said Ankara wants a commitment by the European Union to allow Turks visa-free travel in Europe and to update the customs union between Turkey and the European Union.

“We will come together in Istanbul next Tuesday” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, Erdogan said while en route from Brussels, the Anadolu news agency said.

Erdogan said it would be a four-party summit if British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to join the talks.