Many expected friction at the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul two days ago. But the impression given to the outside world did not justify those fears.
Yesterday, some important behind-the-scenes notes from the Istanbul summit reached Ankara.
Before everything else, Ankara is satisfied with Putin’s remarks that Russia shares the same objectives as Turkey — even if their approaches differ. Circles within our foreign ministry interpreted the diplomatic meaning of Putin’s remarks:
1. Turkey’s attitude toward the Assad regime is very clear. Putin is well aware of that. His remarks that “our objectives are the same, [but our] approaches differ” indicate that Moscow intends to go around the curve.
2. Regional actors such as Russia are like cruise liners: They can’t maneuver easily. Therefore, a remark from Putin and a follow-up of, “We are not the attorneys for Damascus,” are signals of a maneuver, albeit a slow one.
3. The Istanbul summit enables Putin to maneuver via Turkey.
Ankara, wary of another experience similar to that of Iraq, doesn’t want to see Syria breaking apart and wants its army and state structure to remain intact. We were told in Ankara that Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu conveyed this message to Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In short, this was the Turkish message:
‘’Turkey is on the top of the list of countries most affected by developments in Syria. We have had Syrian artillery fire into our territory and we have suffered fatalities. Turkey is hosting about 200,000 Syrian refugees and meeting these costs all by itself. There is an urgent need for a transitional government in order to prevent the civil war from getting worse and spreading throughout the region.
“In this process, the Syrian army — with the exception of purely [Alawite] units under Bashar al-Assad — and the government structure must be kept intact. If not, the civil war will only expand as it did in Iraq and events in Syria will spiral out of control. To maintain order in Syria during the transition depends on keeping the army unified.”
Turkey advocates turning over provisional Syrian rule to someone who does not have blood on his hands. Ankara has already voiced its view that there may be names such as Farouk al-Sharaa in the picture. For example, former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected to Qatar, or somebody similar, could set up a transitional government.
It is understood that a serious mental gymnastics took place in Istanbul on exactly what kind of a transition is planned. The Russian side put forth their “with Assad” and the Turkish side their “without Assad” formulas. But both sides did not reject any of the formulas out of hand.
They only emphasized the plus side of their positions. For Ankara, the most important question is if there is to be transition with Assad, how long that will last. Ankara drew Moscow’s attention to the new crises a prolonged Assad presence could provoke.
We can say that the prevailing view in Ankara now is that Russia has moved slightly from its default position on Syria.