Although he brought together a million people at an Aug. 7 rally in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan still doesn’t feel safe in his own country. He might feel safer in Russia, although the countries were on the brink of war after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet Nov. 24.
Fearing an assassination attempt after a July 15 coup attempt, Erdogan's entourage took a roundabout air route Aug. 9 on its way to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. Journalist Fikret Bila conveyed the mood on Erdogan’s plane: Security officials crossed Turkey in fear, but were able to relax a little in Russian air space.
Erdogan certainly didn't arrive in a position of strength. After the coup attempt, Erdogan found he could not obtain the public support he wanted from his NATO allies, who condemned the massive purge he imposed. And so, Erdogan went to Russia as the needy one.
"Czar" Putin’s facial expressions while welcoming "Sultan" Erdogan told everyone who has the upper hand. And Putin fully intends to play it.
The starting point of Turkey's crisis with Russia was the Syrian war. Reconciliation with Russia no doubt will require a change in Turkey's Syrian policy. Erdogan's previously smug attitude toward Putin's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been the first thing to go. Erdogan used to ask what Russia was doing in Syria. Before his trip to St, Petersburg, Erdogan told Itar-Tass news agency, “The most important and key actor to achieve peace in Syria is Russia.”
If Russia is the key actor, where does that leave Turkey?
No doubt, as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said when predicting the outcome of Erdogan's visit, charter flights will resume between Russia and Turkey; construction of the nuclear power station at Akkuyu, Turkey, will speed up; and work will start on the Turkish Stream pipeline that will carry Russian natural gas to Europe.
But Putin, by underlining that full normalization will take time, was telling Turkey he hasn’t forgotten the plane that was shot down. Those who know Putin well frequently say, "He never forgives. He takes his revenge." Better not forget that.
Developing economic and political peace with an important neighbor is a reasonable strategy for Russia, which is badly pressed by Western sanctions. This strategy might not sever Turkey’s ties with its traditional alliances, but it certainly won't make it easy for NATO to enhance its presence in the Black Sea and south Caucasus.
On the other hand, it is also vital for Turkey to reinstate its interests in Russia at a time when the Turkish economy is showing signs of trouble. But this exchange goes beyond the economy. Erdogan has on many occasions proved his skills in "blackmail politics." By showing his Russian card to the United States, European Union and NATO allies, Erdogan is basically saying, "Either you learn to live with a Turkey with Erdogan, or you will lose Turkey."
Putin knows all this. He knows Turkey will not cut its ties with NATO and the EU under the circumstances. Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s door, which Erdogan sometimes points to as an alternative, is not as wide open as some think. Putin, who has been telling Iran to wait, has no intention of carrying Turkey to Shanghai.
Putin has the better cards to play and will try to distance Turkey from the West and, as the price of normalization, will ask Ankara to modify its Syria policy. He will not allow Erdogan to close the books by simply saying that the July 15 coup attempt showed the Gulenists are trying to disrupt Turkey's relations with Russia and blaming them for shooting down the Russian plane.
And of course, no one expects Erdogan to revise his narrative from “murder Assad” to “our brother Assad” overnight. Comments by parties in St. Petersburg indicate the issue is a sensitive one. Both men know their differences on Assad. But both have the same goal: democracy in Syria. They say they will seek a solution that works for both of them.
Toward that end, Cavusoglu said a tripartite mechanism is being established that will include foreign affairs, army and intelligence teams. A Turkish team flew to St. Petersburg on Aug. 10 for this purpose.
Cavusoglu said the team members have a common understanding on Syria that seeks “a cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and a political solution.” The problem is how to make the deeds match the wishes. Some of the items to be considered include the following:
Turkey wants the siege of Aleppo lifted. Russia, however, says a humanitarian corridor has been opened and rejects Ankara’s claims of civilian hardships.
Turkey opposes attacks on moderate opposition groups. Russia simply says, “Tell us where not to hit.”
Both countries emphasize a political solution for a democratic order, but Turkey insists on Assad’s departure.
Just as Turkey is trying to enjoy a reconciliation with Russia, groups supported by Turkey launched their heaviest assault in five years to break the siege of Aleppo.
Just as Turkey was bargaining with Russia on not putting Turkey-supported groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham on its target list, another development broke out: Jabhat al-Nusra announced it is ending its affiliation with al-Qaeda and will henceforth be called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Conquest of Syria Front). Turkey and Qatar, and their key Syrian proxy, Ahrar al-Sham, were pressing Jabhat al-Nusra to change its name. They felt that if Jabhat al-Nusra cuts its ties with al-Qaeda, the road will be open for it to enter alliances with other armed groups and also receive foreign assistance.
But the attempted image change did not fly with the United States, Russia or Iran.
Putin is not expected to comply with Turkey's requests, as Erdogan has come to him from a position of weakness. So, how long can Turkey continue with this game?
Erdogan will have to make changes to satisfy Russia, but he has his own misgivings. He has obligations to his friends in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t want to destroy those ties while building new ones with others.
Turkey is also worried about the kind of blowback experienced in Afghanistan. Turkey, which failed to heed warnings, is responsible for the rise of a Taliban along its border. One more critical issue: Ankara considers the Kurds more dangerous than the Islamic State. Ankara is furious about the partnership the United States has entered into with the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People's Protection Units, and is aware that Russia is trying to keep Kurds on its side. It was Russia that created breathing space for the Kurds at Aleppo and Afrin against attacks by Turkey-supported groups. Russia allowed the Syrian Kurdish PYD to open an office in Moscow. Russia has no logical reason to give up the Kurds to the United States just to keep Ankara happy. Don’t forget, even before Turkey shot down its plane, Russia did not interfere with Kurdistan Workers Party activities in Moscow.
In short, Russia believes the success of its military intervention in Syria depends in part on Turkey keeping guns and militants from crossing Turkey's borders. It sees the toll of shooting down a Russian plane as Turkey ending its support of armed groups and cooperating fully with Russia toward a political solution. All this will require Turkey to terminate its hostile policies toward Syria and the Kurds. Otherwise, hard feelings are likely to recur.
Since Erdogan's meeting with Putin, Turkish media has been carried away with headlines such as “A new page,” “Stronger than before” and “Russian spring.” But Russia’s expectations from this "new page" go beyond the economy and all the way to keeping Turkey as a spoiler in NATO and making sure Turkey toes Moscow’s line in Syria.