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Vladimir Putin to meet Erdogan in Istanbul despite continued Syria differences

Russian President Vladimir Putin's forthcoming trip to Istanbul continues the pattern of a gradual repairing of relations between Russian and Turkey despite continuing deep differences over the conflict in Syria.

News that Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning to travel to Turkey on 10th October 2016 re-opens the question of how well the Russian – Turkish rapprochement is going.

Many of the hoped for predictions made shortly after the Turkish coup attempt in July have failed to happen.

NATO and the US are still firmly ensconced at Incirlik air base.  The US continues to conduct missions in Syria from there.  Talk of Russia being granted use of the air base has ended.

There is no sign of Turkey quitting NATO or giving up its application for EU membership or joining the Eurasian institutions.

Erdogan’s much anticipated visit to Tehran has failed to happen.  The Iranian news media, which was far more enthusiastic in talking up the possibility of a Turkish realignment than the Russian media was, has quietly dropped the subject.

Meanwhile Erdogan continues to support the Ukrainian position on Crimea, and assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of this when the two men met at the recent session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Turkey is also pressing ahead with Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria. 

There is a persistent myth that there is a secret Russian-Turkish understanding whereby the Turks have supposedly agreed to cease assisting the Jihadi fighters battling in and around Aleppo in return for Russian acquiescence to Operation Euphrates Shield, which supposedly is directed against the Kurds.

The Russians have in fact publicly criticised Operation Euphrates Shield, and have made it perfectly clear that they oppose it.

As for the talk of a secret Russian-Turkish understanding about Turkey ceasing to help Jihadi fighters fighting in and around Aleppo, there is no evidence that such an agreement exists, and what is actually happening on the ground in Syria proves that it does not. 

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin recently complained to the UN Security Council that the Jihadis fighting in and around Aleppo are continuing to receive heavy weapons.  This is what he said

 “They are armed by tanks, APCs, field artillery, multiple rocket launchers… dozens and dozens of units, including heavy weaponry… Of course, they couldn’t have made this equipment themselves. All of this has been received by them and is still being shipped to them by generous Western backers, with the US, presumably, turning a blind eye”.

The only route through which such equipment could reach the Jihadis fighting near or in Aleppo is across the Turkish border by way of the Jarablus corridor.  This is the supply route to the Jihadis in northern Syria, and Churkin’s comments show that it is still operating.

It was in order to keep this corridor open when it was threatened by closure because of the advance of the Kurdish militia the YPG that the Turks occupied Jarablus and launched Operation Euphrates Shield.

In passing, I find it surprising that people continue to believe in the existence of this supposed secret Russian-Turkish agreement – for which there is no evidence – when the very public US support for the Turkish move on Jarablus (shown by the fact the US provided air support for it) makes its purpose perfectly clear.

It is an entirely different matter that Operation Euphrates Shield does not seem to be going well. 

As predicted, it is running into opposition from the Kurdish YPG, whilst the Jihadi “Free Syrian Army’ fighters upon whom Turkey relies have turned out to be poor fighters incapable of taking on either ISIS or the YPG even when backed by Turkish tanks. 

An anonymous source (likely either Turkish or American) speaking to Al-Monitor derisively spoke of them in this way

“The war in Syria is a war of ideologies. A Shiite militiaman dies for Twelver imams; a YPG man dies for [imprisoned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) Abdullah] Ocalan and Kurdish nationalism. Who will the FSA militant sacrifice himself for? Without jihadi motivation, the majority of the FSA looks more like a mercenary gang fighting for money.”

The result is that Operation Euphrates Shield is far from achieving its objectives.  Most importantly the key town of Al-Bab has not been secured and is still in ISIS’s hands, and there now seems to be a race underway between the Turkish military, the Syrian military, and the YPG over who will be the first to capture it.

However reports suggest that Erdogan – as is to be expected – far from pulling back, is instead doubling down on Operation Euphrates Shield, and is now planning to support the Turkish tanks and ‘Free Syrian Army’ fighters who are carrying out the operation by sending Turkish infantry into Syria to back the Turkish tanks there.

This opens up the very real possibility that the eventual result of Operation Euphrates Shield will be that it is Turkey not Russia that becomes bogged down in Syria.

As for the Russians, whilst it is true is that the Russians have been relatively restrained in what they have publicly said about Operation Euphrates Shield, that should not be taken as any sort of sign that they are happy about it, or that there is some sort of secret understanding in existence between them and the Turks.

Rather it is consistent with the way the Russians conduct their diplomacy.  They cannot stop Operation Euphrates Shield so they see no sense in advertising the fact by making a great fuss about it.

Not for the first time the Russians are misjudged because they do not behave like Americans.  Where the Americans increase the volume of their complaints whenever they feel powerless to do something effective (the fighting in Aleppo being a case in point) the Russians do the opposite.  Generally speaking it is the Russians rather than the Americans who like to talk soft and carry a big stick.

In this the Turks are more like the Russians.  Turkey’s reticence about the fighting in Aleppo is not because the Turks are happy about what is going on there or because they have some sort of secret understanding about it with the Russians. 

It is because the Turks know they cannot stop the fighting in Aleppo and do not want to humiliate themselves and risk the improvement of their relations with Russia by acting as if they can.

The one important Syria related contact between the Russians and the Turks which has taken place is the one which happened on 15th September 2016 – several weeks after Operation Euphrates Shield began – when General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian military’s General Staff, finally followed through with his previously postponed trip to Turkey and met there with General Hulusi Akar, the Chief of the Turkish military’s General Staff. 

The purpose of this meeting was not to agree that Turkish supplies to Jihadis fighting in and around Aleppo would be stopped.  It was to agree rules of engagement between the Russian and Turkish militaries in Syria to prevent accidental clashes between them.  A necessary consequence of this agreement is that the Turkish military will stay away from Aleppo.

If there is no real understanding between Russia and Turkey over Syria, and if the Turks are showing no sign of a strategic realignment away from the West and towards Russia, what is the point of Putin’s visit?

The short answer is that it is to continue work on re-establishing the political and economic ties between Turkey and Russia, which disintegrated following the Turkish shooting down of the Russian SU24 fighter bomber last November, and which have yet to be fully restored. 

In a sign of the residual distrust the Russians still feel towards Erdogan and Turkey – reflecting Russian anger about Operation Euphrates Shield – these ties are taking much longer to restore than anyone anticipated.

By way of example, it took a direct order from Putin – following a complaint to Putin from Erdogan on 26th August 2016 – for the ban on Russian charter flights to Turkey to be lifted on 28th August 2016.

This happened at the very end of August, just before the end of the school holidays in Russia, so that the benefit to Turkey of direct charter flight from Russia for this year’s tourist season was lost.

The Russians and the Turks nonetheless still have reasons to talk to each other despite their differences over Syria and their residual distrust of each other.

From the Russian point of view there is nothing to be gained from having Turkey an enemy.  The economic ties, whilst more valuable to Turkey than Russia, still benefit Russia, especially the Turk Stream pipeline, which is useful insurance for Russia in case North Stream 2 runs into problems.

Beyond that at a time when relations with the US over Syria are becoming increasingly fraught the Russians will be seeking reassurances from the Turks that they will not support any dramatic action by the US in Syria, for example a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria, or covert attacks by the US from Turkish territory on Russian military positions in Syria.

As for the Turks, with their economy precariously balanced as they struggle with large deficits, rising inflation, growing debt, and the demotion of their credit rating to junk status, maintaining a good economic relationship with Russia – their biggest trading partner after the EU – is becoming of critical importance.

Beyond that Turkey’s relations with the US remain fraught. 

No evidence has come to light that the US was involved in the July coup attempt and the US ambassador to Turkey has insisted that (as I have previously speculated) he would have immediately warned the Turkish government if he had been tipped off about it. 

However the US and Turkey remain in dispute over a wide range of issues, including the extradition of  Fethullah Gulen – whom the Turks continue to blame for the attempted coup – and especially over the YPG, which the US still cannot decide whether to commit to or drop. 

If only for that reason – in order to remind the US not to take Turkey for granted – the limited Russian-Turkish rapprochement remains just about on track, and Putin can expect a warm reception when he arrives on 10th October 2016 in Istanbul.

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Alexander Mercouris
Editor-in-Chief atThe Duran.

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