Putin, Erdogan have a deal on Syria
After Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg, Ankara says the next administration in Syria should be inclusive and secular so that everyone can live with their beliefs. This is as close as Turkey has ever come to accept that Assad has a legitimate role to play.
It is the ‘morning-after’ that needs to be watched when a crucial summit meeting takes place. And, as details become available, it emerges that the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan at St. Petersburg on August 9 has been exceptionally productive.
Neither side showed interest in labeling the qualitatively new level of relationship in hackneyed terms, but then, it doesn’t matter whether one calls it ‘alliance’, ‘quasi-alliance’ or ‘entente’. What matters is that a profoundly meaningful relationship is commencing.
Russia and Turkey go back far in history and do not need foreplay. The critical mass developed within 48 hours of the conversation in St. Petersburg.
Within a day of Erdogan proposing and Putin accepting the idea of a ‘mechanism’ comprising diplomats, military and intelligence officials of the two sides to discuss the nitty-gritty of Syrian conflict, a composite Turkish delegation took off for Moscow to meet Russian counterparts on August 11.
Evidently, Erdogan traveled to St. Petersburg with an ‘action plan’. In fact, he was accompanied by spy chief Hakan Fidan.
Turkey wants the two sides to take concrete steps. The discussions in Moscow are expected to set the ball rolling.
Again, the Russian decision to convert Hmeymim Air Base as a permanent fully-operational military base in Syria has nothing to do with Erdogan’s visit, but also everything to do with the Turkish-Russian rapprochement.
The Russian Defense Ministry since disclosed the details of the plan for Hmeymim, which includes expanding aircraft apron, improving the air strip, building barracks and a hospital, assigning extra space for large transport aircraft, installation of new radio equipment including air traffic control systems, creating new sites for deployment of Pantsir surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapon systems and so on.
It was in August last year that Russia and Syria signed an agreement allowing Moscow to use Hmeymim for an indefinite period free of charge, but, interestingly, it was on August 9 that an entry in the official data base of Russian Duma showed that Putin has submitted the document for ratification by parliament.
Without doubt, a fully operational base in Hmeymim, which is located virtually on the Turkish border, signifies a major geopolitical decision that factors in the Russian-Turkish rapprochement.
At the talks in St. Petersburg, an exchange took place on Turkey resuming operations in Syrian air space (with a view to attack Islamic State), which were suspended following the shooting down of a Russian jet last November.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced on August 10 that Ankara “will again, in an active manner, with its planes take part in operations.”
“Let’s fight against the terrorist group together, so that we can clear it out as soon as possible,” Cavusoglu urged. He added, “We will discuss all the details (with Russia). We have always called on Russia to carry out anti-Daesh (IS) operations together.”
In an upbeat note, he pointed out: “Many countries are engaged in Syria actively. There could be mistakes. In order to prevent that, we need to put into practice the solidarity and cooperation (mechanism) between us (Turkey and Russia) including sharing of real-time intelligence.”
A new ‘comfort level’ is apparent in Cavusoglu’s words. At the military and intelligence level, Moscow senses that Turkey has begun rolling back its support for Syrian extremist groups.
On its part, Moscow announced on August 10 that humanitarian corridors leading out of Aleppo will remain open daily for a limited 3-hour period. Put differently, the military operations to capture the city will continue in top gear and remain top priority.
Of course, the whole world knows that the battle for Aleppo will determine the course of the war. Importantly, for Turkey, it is in Aleppo that its intentions toward the Syrian regime will be put to test.
The reports from Tehran, citing military sources, highlight that in the heavy fighting in the western and southern parts of Aleppo, where Saudi-backed rebel groups have launched a massive attack to break the siege, Russian jets are relentlessly bombing locations of Jeish al-Fatah.
Of course, the bottom line is about the peace process and here the million dollar question concerns the role of President Assad in a political transition.
In a nuanced stance, Cavusoglu said in Ankara on August 11 that Turkey and Russia agree that the next Syrian regime should be all-inclusive. “We think the same as Russia on Syria’s future. The next administration in Syria should be inclusive and cover everyone,” he said, adding it “should be a secular one.”
“We always say only a political solution (in Syria) can be permanent, in terms of not hurting civilians, separating moderate opposition from terrorist groups and (ensuring) humanitarian aid… We are on the same page with Russia that Syria should have an administration under which everyone can live with their beliefs,” he said.
This is as close as Turkey has ever come to accept that Assad has a legitimate role to play. Cavusoglu spoke in full knowledge of Erdogan’s one-on-one with Putin.
As the veteran Middle East hand Robert Fisk wrote, “There is a long list of the potential losers in the theater of St. Petersburg. First, Isis (IS) and al-Qaeda/Nusra/Fatah el-Sham, and all the other Islamist outfits now fighting the regime in Syria, who suddenly find that their most reliable arms conduit has teamed up with their most ferocious enemy… Russian air force. Then there’s the Saudi and Qatari billionaires who have been supplying the cash and guns for the Sunni warriors who are trying to overthrow both Damascus and Baghdad, and humble the Shia of Iran, Syria… and Lebanon”.
Having said that, Moscow and Ankara still have to cover some distance to carry the momentum forward, and it is here that the United States comes in as ‘sleeping partner’. The point is, Erdogan has his ‘red lines’, too – Kurdish issue.
If Erdogan radically downsizes Turkey’s support for extremist groups and keeps a balanced, open mind regarding Assad’s participation in the talks, Moscow (and Tehran) will go the extra mile to help him hold the ‘red lines’ on Kurdistan.
On the other hand, Syrian Kurds are also on a leash that is held by Uncle Sam and whether he holds it tight or not will depend on a host of considerations that lie in the womb of time.
All in all, Putin played his cards brilliantly by hosting a successful visit by Erdogan, with emphasis on putting the relationship back on track on an upward trajectory. He showed no interest to burden the delicate rapprochement by injecting airy geopolitics into it.
Instead, Putin trained his thoughts on ‘doables’ and ‘deliverables’ – and in reviving cordial personal ties with Edogan. The ‘body language’ was notable.
Moscow understands that the verve and dynamism of the partnership will ultimately depend on how far Russia meets Erdogan’s critical needs, as he charts out independent foreign policies in the downstream of the existential crisis Turkey went through.
Thus, there is a heavy accent on trade and investment and economic cooperation, which make both sides stakeholders.
In political terms, Putin held a strong hand, given Moscow’s decisive role to tip off Ankara about the impending coup of July 15.
But he point-blank refused to anticipate the complex Turkish-American tango, on whose outcome so much depends how comfortable Turkey’s future habitation is going to be within the western alliance system.
Most certainly, Putin won’t hold grudge against Erdogan if he flaunts the ‘St. Petersburg card’ – in defence of his faith, the throne and the Fatherland – when the US Secretary of State John Kerry visits for the poker game on August 24.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.