The expressions on the faces of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed little apparent convergence of views regarding Syria despite the dramatic developments unfolding in the Syrian capital.
The two met in Moscow Wednesday (July 18, 2012) just as news broke that a massive bombing in Damascus had killed Syria’s defense minister and his deputy — a relative of and close aide to President Bashar al-Assad.
Putin looked emotionless as usual while Erdogan appeared uneasy and under stress. The Russian leader skirted Syria in his opening remarks, saying only that the two men discussed the issue. In response to a question, Putin added that he considers Turkish support for a Russian-brokered agreement reached in Geneva earlier this month as important. But that diplomacy appears overtaken by events as the Assad regime continues to unravel.
Returning to Turkey after the one-day visit to Moscow, Erdogan reiterated that “in Geneva, our foreign minister has already said that [we support] a transition government that does not include Assad — at all.” The Russians, however, have not agreed publicly to jettisoning Assad. They note that the Geneva plan says only that a transition government must be formed by “mutual consent” between the regime and its opponents.
Despite their differences over Syria, however, Putin and Erdogan acted as though all was business as usual regarding bilateral ties. Putin highlighted that Russia continues to have “a strategic partnership” with Turkey and both leaders pointed out strong trade ties reaching over $32 billion annually, growing energy cooperation and the 3.5 million Russian tourists who visit Turkey each year.
“We're producing 50% of our energy from natural-gas conversion plants,” Erdogan said. “The Russian Federation is the number-one supplier of those plants.”
He added that Turkey is “taking a new step forward with Russia — and that is in the nuclear-energy area. We’ll be building the Akkuyu plant together with Russia, which is a project that costs $20 billion. It’ll be completed in seven years.”
The two leaders also agreed to hold their third high-level strategic council meeting in Istanbul on October 15.
Turkey pushed the reset button with Russia in May 2010, a year after Ahmet Davutoglu became foreign minister, signing multiple agreements and establishing the strategic cooperation council, whose main focus is on economic ties. In January 2012, Turkey formally called Russia a “strategic ally.”
Davutoglu, who considers himself a key player on the global stage, has not let the reset with Russia interfere with Turkey’s vehement opposition to the Assad regime. He has called on world powers to reform the UN Security Council and to isolate Russia and China for using their veto power to prop up the Syrian dictator.
“We should increase pressure on the Syrian regime and those who support the regime, increasingly isolating them,” he said at a recent meeting in Paris of the so-called Friends of Syria, a group that Russia and China have boycotted.
The Erdogan government speaks with confidence when it says that the Syrian issue will have no negative impact on bilateral ties with Russia. In fact, there is an expectation in Turkey that Russia will come to understand that it has erred in its Syria policy and that it is time to abandon its support for a dying regime.
That may be so, but Turkey stands to lose if it continues to portray Russia as a wrong-doer. The bilateral relationship is lopsided in Russia’s favor because of Turkey’s dependence on Russian natural gas.
Moscow, meanwhile, has quietly signaled that it can use its economic leverage over Turkey.
After the Syrians downed a Turkish jet on June 22, Turkey called on NATO member countries to show solidarity and expressed its intention to intercept Russian vessels delivering cargo to Syria. Six days later, the Russian government's food-safety and quarantine service Rosselkhoznadzor issued an announcement disclosing that it had detected 33 cases of infestation in Turkish exports to Russia of fruits and vegetables.
Turkish exports of fresh produce to Russia amounted to $2.6 billion by May and are projected to reach $6.2 billion by year’s end.
While it would be pure speculation to suggest that Russia would use its energy card against Turkey this fall or winter, it would be equally reckless to disregard Russia’s position as the major supplier of Turkish energy resources and third most important export market for Turkey. On the other hand, events in Damascus appear to be taking on a momentum of their own that neither Russia nor Turkey can control.
Tülin Daloglu is a journalist and foreign-policy analyst based in Ankara, Turkey.