Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

No change in St Petersburg

The St Petersburg Summit saw no shift in the Russian and Turkish positions on the Syrian crisis, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Even more than the Turks themselves, the Syrian opposition was fixed on the recent summit meeting in the Russian city of St Petersburg between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as it tried to read between the lines to determine the two presidents’ intentions on Syria.

Would Erdogan defer to Putin on the Syrian crisis, or would he stand firm in his demands for the end of the regime headed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad?

Over the last ten months, political and military conditions have changed in Syria, and alliances and partnerships have shifted. The Russian role has expanded, and Russian dominance over Syrian decision-making has increased.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s ties with the EU have been shaken by the lack of support the latter offered Turkey over the downing of a Russian warplane, and the two parties have disagreed over Syrian refugees.

The relationship between Turkey and the US also took a blow after the US supported Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara designates as terrorist organisations. The Syrian opposition feared that these pressures could lead Turkey to abandon its hostility to the Syrian regime and its support for the opposition.

At the St Petersburg Summit economic questions were up for discussion, with these taking up the lion’s share of the talks. The parties agreed on the restoration of commercial and investment activities, including tourism in which Turkey receives the largest share of Russian tourists and the trade in foodstuffs which meets some of Russia’s needs.

The two parties set a target of $100 billion in commercial exchanges and discussed a planned pipeline that would transport Russian gas to Turkey, meet 60 per cent of domestic needs and deny Europe access to Russian gas.

The two presidents also discussed the resumption of the construction of a Russian-made nuclear plant in Turkey.

The Syrian crisis occupied the second part of the talks, and a set of overlapping problems emerged. The two parties disagree about the survival of the Syrian regime and hold different views of the Syrian Kurds seeking to establish a federal state that Turkey claims could threaten its southern border.

They also support various military and political parties in the conflict and have different strategic interests in Syria and the wider region.

The summit meeting came after the Syrian opposition managed to break the siege on the city of Aleppo in northern Syria, besting regime forces and their Russian air support, and after Russia lost its bet that Turkey would remain neutral in the offensive to take Aleppo.

The battle demonstrated Turkey’s ability to overturn the balance of power without directly confronting Moscow by lending its support to Syrian opposition fighters who were able to frustrate the offensive launched on Aleppo by the regime and Russia.

Economic enticements were not enough to persuade Erdogan to make concessions on Syria, his militant stance on the Kurds, or his unequivocal position on the Al-Assad regime. Had Erdogan ceded to Russian wishes, Turkey’s effectiveness in the region would have been blunted.

Syrian opposition figures thought it unlikely that the summit would end with any fundamental change in the two presidents’ stances on the Syrian crisis, speculating that economics would supersede politics and remaining problems would be postponed to a later stage.

Eqab Yehia, a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said that “the Syrian crisis dominated the meeting, but not in terms of Turkey’s abandoning its role in Syria or backing down from its positions.”

“The Russians and the Turks have a common interest in supporting bilateral economic ties, and they decided not to clash on politics. Their differences on Syria are too great for them to reach consensus, but maybe they are cautiously discussing a new initiative in which they can both be effective and which will achieve a balanced stance.”

Syrian opposition figure Louay Safi said that “during the summit the two parties tried to reach an understanding on the Kurdish militias in northern Syria. But any coordination will only be on the level of an understanding that preserves both sides’ interests and prevents any military escalation between them. Turkey is not prepared to abandon its position in either NATO or Syria.”

“Turkey’s interests intersect with those of the Syrian opposition in bringing down the Al-Assad regime, containing Iranian expansion in the region, and quelling the rebellion of the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian opposition relies on Turkey on the grounds that Syria has strong cultural, political, strategic and historical links with Turkey, meaning that Turkey has a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis Russia,” Safi said.

Monzer Akbik, spokesman for the Syrian opposition Al-Ghad current, confirmed that there had been no radical shift at the Russian-Turkish summit. “The battle of Aleppo cast its shadow over the meeting. Putin knows that Turkey is assisting the armed opposition, which was able to make strategic progress in Aleppo at his expense and that of his partner Al-Assad. The climate of the talks was one of the parties fighting by proxy, with each trying to find common ground they could agree on,” he said.

Neither party had retreated from its position on the Syrian crisis, Akbik said. “Neither Putin nor Erdogan are so naïve as to believe that the other would radically alter his position on Syria. The meeting led to a breakthrough on the economic front, but the most they could agree on Syria was a military truce to allow the political talks in Geneva to go ahead. A significant political breakthrough at this stage on Syria is not on the cards.”

The battle for Aleppo was a regional political contest more than a local military fight. The Syrian regime and Russia had been putting off the next round of the Geneva negotiations with the opposition in the hope of winning the battle for Aleppo, which would have enabled them to impose their vision and conditions.

The best-case scenario for them was that the opposition would abandon the idea of regime change and accept a few ministerial portfolios and high-level positions. Given the seriousness of this scenario, all regional players joined the fight, seeking to break the will of the other side, whether directly, as in the case of Russia and Iran, or indirectly, as in the case of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The latter group increased its pressure on the armed opposition to unite, and this upended the equation, leading to an opposition victory and breaking the siege on Aleppo.

In the run-up to the summit, the Russians sent messages to Turkey agreeing to lift the sanctions against it, especially on tourism, condemning the recent coup attempt, and quietly dismantling Gulenist schools and institutions in the Russian Federation.

Erdogan sent positive messages of his own to Moscow, most significantly an apology for downing the Russian plane, a reiteration of the importance of Turkey’s ties with Moscow, and his eagerness to move ahead with the oil pipeline that will harm Europe to Russia’s benefit.

But these messages did not signal either side’s willingness to retreat from its stance on Syria. Though preoccupied domestically by the aftermath of the coup attempt, Erdogan did not hesitate to consider the battle of Aleppo his own, even when it coincided with the conciliatory summit with Russia.

The most Erdogan can offer Putin is a Turkish turn towards Russia that will annoy, but not harm, the US and trouble Europe but not precipitate a clash. Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria will not go beyond increased security coordination and the exchange of information on jihadi movements.

The Russian and Turkish positions on Al-Assad will remain at odds, pending a major international conference attended by all the parties to the Syrian conflict.

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