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Erdogan and Putin: The odd couple's alliance grows

A year ago, they weren't speaking but the recent summit shows a relationship strengthening despite tensions over Syria

The summit meeting last Friday between presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan would ordinarily have provoked a shower of media coverage.

Eight months after Turkey apologised and the ice between Putin and Erdogan began to melt, things are more than back to normal, at least as far as the Turks are concerned

Held in a glittering state room in the Kremlin, the two leaders presided over the second-ever gathering of the “Russia-Turkey High-Level Cooperation Council (HLCC)” set up in 2015, trying to project the image of a close regional partnership bypassing the Western world.  

The meeting had a double agenda. One was the restoration of trade and economic links vital to Turkey’s business world which has been hard hit by Russian sanctions over the last 15 months since a Russian fighter jet was shot down in November 2015.

The other, which might have been expected to be acrimonious, was the future progress towards a settlement in Syria ahead of the latest peace negotiations in Astana this week.

What a difference a year makes

A year ago, the two leaders were not even speaking to each other. Relations between the two countries were frozen in the wake of the crisis.

But eight months after Turkey apologised and the ice between Putin and Erdogan began to melt, things are more than back to normal, at least as far as the Turks are concerned. 

"I think we can abandon the word ‘normalisation of relations, because we think we have already passed that stage,” President Erdogan told reporters after the meeting wearing a broad smile which he did not have after another recent three hour meeting, that with Theresa May, the UK prime minister.

President Putin pointed to another sign of close cooperation, “very trusting and efficient contacts” in Syria between the military and intelligence establishments of the two countries.

International attention for the cordiality of Erdogan’s meeting with Putin and its likely fruits was swept away only a few hours later when Turkey’s relations with Western Europe were engulfed by an unprecedentedly acrimonious new crisis over the right of the president and other senior politicians in the ruling party to address rallies among Turkish expatriates in Germany and the Netherlands.

With Erdogan currently calling on international organisations to bring in sanctions against the Netherlands for banning Turkey’s foreign minister from landing, and deporting its minister for the family and social policy, it may well be that the row marks a serious deterioration, perhaps even a lasting breakdown in Turkey’s dealings with some EU members.

Exports, tourists and energy

By contrast, the talks in Moscow were good news from Turkey’s point of view, at least on the economic front, giving it a confidence that it has an alternative to Europe.  

Russia is ready to work on the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power station at Akkuyu and on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline

On the eve of the summit, Russia eased continuing restrictions on some vegetables, onions, broccoli, and cauliflower, but other food items are still prohibited, including tomatoes, apples, strawberries, zucchinis, pumpkins and most poultry products. Erdogan hopes to regain the old export levels, warning, “We are not there yet.”

That is not quite the end of the story, however. Back in 2015, even before the jet downing incident, Turkish food exports to Russia were lagging disappointingly partly because of Russian concerns about food safety and related quality issues.

Things should be easier on the tourism front, with estimates of the numbers of Russian tourists expected to visit Turkey this year put various at three million or even five million. That should bring relief to an industry which had a calamitously bad year in 2016 and which has not had its prospects improved by the rows with the Netherlands and Germany.

On the energy front, Russia is ready to work on the actual construction of Turkey’s longstanding first nuclear power station at Akkuyu and on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline.  

What about Manbij?

This is solid though hardly spectacular progress, but it was accompanied by a surprisingly strong-sounding Russian and Turkish agreement over Syria. Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the war and troops of the Assad regime, with Russian support, last week blocked a possible move eastwards by Turkey’s "Operation Euphrates Shield".

Turkey seems able to accommodate itself to what the Russians are offering, but its allies in the Syrian opposition are much less happy

This development was interpreted outside Turkey as a major setback for its hopes of playing a major role in the endgame in the civil war. Inside Turkey, apart from complaints that some Russian soldiers are apparently stitching a Syrian Kurdish YPG badge on their uniforms, there has mostly been silence about the implications of events around Manbij.

There has also been no detailed information about the outcome of an unprecedented meeting in Antalya on 5 March between the heads of the American, Russian, and Turkish armed forces about future operations in Syria.

But despite warnings from US Senator John McCain about continuing Turkish exasperation at the alliance between US forces and the Syrian Kurds, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, declared the day after the generals had met in Antalya that his country would not attack Manbij unilaterally.

Instead, Turkey is probably waiting for the US to remove YPG troops from the town after the fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State (IS) group's de facto capital 135km to the south, leaving Manbij in Arab hands with the Kurds confined to the east bank of the Euphrates.

Ankara has probably also been offered some assurances that the Syrian Kurdish enclaves will not edge further towards independence but stay inside a nominally reunited Syria.

Inside the enclaves, however, stirring towards greater autonomy continue. The enclaves have taken the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and apparently still hope that Manbij, a predominantly Arab city, will form its fourth canton.

Anxiety in Ankara?

Given the friendly contacts between both the US and Russia and the Syrian Kurds, Turkey must be uneasy.

Its best hope for retaining a significant role in Syria looks in keeping on good terms with the Russians and acting as spokesman and protector of the Free Syrian Army groups in the north and a guarantor of the ceasefire. Russian-Turkish agreement in the Kremlin probably amounted to a formal acknowledgement of that.

The forthcoming third round of Syrian peace talks at Astana on 14 and 15 March will put this to the test. Turkey seems able to accommodate itself to what the Russians are offering, but its allies in the Syrian opposition are much less happy and are laying down conditions for attending.

Meanwhile, however, in Turkey all eyes are on the row with Europe.

David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on 10 March 2017 (AFP)

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