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Who gained time in the meeting between Erdogan and Putin?

The first meeting of the new year between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian Head of State Vladimir Putin was held on 23rd of January. We can understand how important this summit was considering the committees accompanied the leaders of both countries. The committees included statesmen holding critical offices such Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers, and Heads of Intelligence. Turkish delegation had the intention to answer some of the global problems while travelling to Moscow. How will the changing conditions in the field after the US withdrawal from Syria effect the Turkish-Russian relationship? Will Turkey’s regional plans coincide with Russia’s?

Russia has been following a very compatible diplomacy about Syria since the very beginning and they panned out well. Despite Turkey and Iran being different approaches for Russia, they managed to have these countries stand by them. However, they did not give up what they want to have from Ankara. They tried to solve the matters, which had potential to heighten the tensions, by making small contacts. For example, they even postponed some of the matters by claiming they concern Iran, and decided on another trilateral summit next month.

We can evaluate the Putin-Erdogan meeting positive and constructive as a whole for the stability in the region. Russia appears not to have made concession to their own agenda. Russia attaches importance to passing on the phase where the constitution of Syria will be prepared since the Astana process. It was announced that they will continue working on for the constitutional committee and will assemble another trilateral summit. Putin once again emphasized that the existence of the US in the region was not legal. If the buffer area requested by Turkey and Russia will be arranged, Russia demands the area to be controlled by the al-Assad regime. Russia wants to increase the effect of Damascus government by allowing the Syrian regime to control the buffer area. In other words, Russia does not want to gift a part of Syria to Turkey together with the concept of a buffer zone. Considering the fact that the Syrian crisis has been ongoing for 8 years now, this is exactly required for peace in the region: A strong Damascus government to take control of their own soil and people.

Divergence over secure zone

With regard to the security zone, Ankara’s approach does not coincide with Moscow. According the AKP government, if the secure zone will be established by Ankara, the way will be cleared for the refugees in the border, whose numbers reach up to 4 million, to return back to their homes. The YPG and PKK threat they face will disappear. In the article of Erdogan published in New York Times three weeks ago, he remarked that local councils should be established with the leadership of Turkey for the governments in the YPG and ISIL occupied regions, and he also aded that a stabilized force consists of soldiers which are not linked with any terrorist organizations should be formed. Erdogan calling Trump right before the Moscow visit is another way of telling Moscow “we are ready to take over the security of Manbij”, and showing that Ankara has also a Washington alternative.

Signs of joint military operation

Since the promises made by Ankara last fall about the removal of terrorist groups in Idlib was not actualized, Moscow started to consider different alternatives. Al-Qaeda linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, one of the mentioned terrorist groups, recently extended their influence area by gaining victories against armed opponent groups supported by Turkey. This is why the following statement of Putin might be a sign of a joint military operation: “Turkish counterparts are doing everything they can in order to fulfill their part of the agreement. There are problems there of course, and we do see them, but we have discussed the things we can do for the region with our Turkish counterparts, and came to terms. Our common idea is to fight against all of the terrorist groups together”.  Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s following first statement after he returned back from the Moscow summit supported this: “There are radical groups in Idlib. It is not easy to control them. The regime sent them there on purpose. We can say that the armistice in the region is ongoing successfully. Radical groups are distressed about this. There are also some countries which are supporting them. But we are decisive together with Russia and Iran. The regime believes in military solution instead of a political one. Together with Russia, we managed to forestall the regime to attack here. Since the radical groups did not like this, they turned into being a moderate opponent, and started attacking Free Syrian Army. There are some further agenda to establish a joint commission and start patrols. We have also discussed these matters.”

East of Euphrates movement on hold

There is an impression that Moscow, who always emphasize the territorial integrity of Syria, did not give green light to AKP about their plan they have been mentioning quite a lot recently towards a military operation to the east of Euphrates. The following morning after he returned back from Moscow, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that James Jeffrey, Special Representative for Syria of the US, will be visiting Turkey and said: “We decided to wait for the east of Euphrates after the withdrawal of the US. We are negotiating this process with everyone. There is no additional instruction from the Commander in Chief about this operation right now.”

Another important point mentioned by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during the abovesaid first statement of him after Moscow was the following: “Constitution of Syria must be decided by the Syrians. We have indirect contact with the regime. When there must be a message sent, it is being sent” and this statement was perceived that the Damascus perception is softened.

TurkStream, Akkuyu…

Economic relations were another subject in the meeting. Acceleration of the construction of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, natural gas pipe line, tourism, increasing the export quota for agricultural products were other discussion points. It is possible to see the evaluations on this matter from the following statement of Erdogan: “We continue to have positive results about economy. Increasing trend continues for trade. And just like The President mentioned a moment ago, the trading volume it has reached up to 26 billion dollars. Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant and TurkStream projects, which are the symbols of our bilateral cooperation, continue with confident steps. The year 2019 will be a very special year at this point. This year, we are going to carry out the activities of culture and tourism year mutually in Turkey and Russia.”

Time will show who gained some time and what is going to happen until the Putin-Erdogan-Ruhani summit, which is planned for next month, but the Siberian cold might have had a freezer effect over Erdogan and his accompanying committee.

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Arif Asalıoğlu is General Director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation in Moscow; expert in the field of Russian-Turkish relations; columnist of Informational agency REGNUM; Founder of Russian and Turkish Intellectuals Meeting.

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