Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A summit of political expediency

The meeting between Erdogan and Putin in St Petersburg is of import not only on its own terms, but for how other powers — principally Iran — received it, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the last quarter of last year, relations between Turkey and Russia deteriorated after the downing of a Russian bomber over Syria to such an extent that some experts said it would be difficult to see how the two countries would mend them anytime soon. Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for the downing of its bomber; these sanctions included a ban on Russian tourism to Turkey and restrictions on Turkish exports to Russia. Flights between the two countries were suspended. Rebuilding trust and resuming normal relations was not on the cards.

Needless to say, bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara had been tense prior to the plane incident, particularly after Russian military intervention in Syria to bolster the Syrian army against rebel groups supported and armed by Turkey. Meanwhile, in the first half of this year, relations between Turkey and the West got tense whether because of differences on how to handle the refugee crisis or because of Western positions against the way the Turkish government reacted to the failed coup attempt on 15 July. Relations with Washington have become dependent on an American response to the extradition demand concerning Fethallah Gulen, the political arch-rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who the Turkish government accused of masterminding the aborted military coup of last month. The US administration stressed that it would decide the matter on the strength of the legal evidence that Ankara would provide against Gulen. In the last few days, Turkey has upped the ante and made clear that its strategic relations with the United States depend on extraditing Gulen. The Americans, in order to contain the matter, decided to send US Vice President Joe Biden to Turkey, as well as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, separately. On the other hand, Russia had no permanent interest in keeping its relations with Turkey in the deep freeze. From a Russian point of view, the most urgent task was not to let its relations with its neighbour deteriorate further. Russia needs a certain level of cooperation from Turkey in Syria, whether against Daesh (the Islamic State group) or in trying to bring to an end the civil war raging in the country.

Against this background, Erdogan flew 9 August to St Petersburg to meet President Vladimir Putin, in their first encounter after the shooting down of the Russian bomber last year. The Russian-Turkish summit caught world attention for the high stakes surrounding the future course of bilateral relations between the two countries, and in the context of the reordering of political maps in the Middle East, especially in Syria.

It came as no surprise that the two sides had almost identical positions on the need to fight terrorism, as well as on the need to strengthen bilateral relations. For example, in the field of energy, the two governments agreed on the importance of the TurkStream pipeline, in addition to the construction of a Russian nuclear power plant in Turkey. In commerce, the Turkish president said he hoped to boost trade with Russia to reach $100 billion annually. Erdogan predicted that relations between the two countries would witness a completely different era in the years to come, according to his words. Furthermore, he said that what he termed “solidarity” between the two would contribute in resolving regional problems. As far as the situation in Syria is concerned, the two did not try to hide their differences, emphasising their common objective to find a way out that would satisfy all parties concerned. It was interesting to hear President Putin say that it is impossible to see a democratic transition in Syria through undemocratic means. Meaning you cannot use force to reach power. The implicit message to the Turkish president is to stop helping rebel groups. Nothing says that this message will not be heeded by the Turks in the near future.

The Russian-Turkish summit came out of political expediency, be it from the vantage point of Russia, or from the perspective of Turkey. It took place in a time of high tension between Turkey and the Western world. The Turks resorted to such a summit to hedge their bets on future. They know they need to reach a better understanding with the Russians in Syria after they realised that their grandiose scheme in that country — and in the larger Middle East — failed. The Russians, for their part, have no interest in antagonising Turkey further.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a meeting with the Russian president in Baku one day before the summit, welcomed the meeting. Putin commented that it is necessary that all regional powers share in finding a solution to regional problems in the Middle East. What was more interesting to note is the reference the Iranian president made to the position of Russia, as expressed by Putin in their meeting; that regional powers should have a say in engineering a new regional security structure to meet national and regional interests. The aforesaid should be of great concern to Arab powers. It means that their future security and stability would depend on the will and interests of outside powers.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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