The Russia House

The Russia House

Never since the legendary John Le Carré novel, or the Bond Sequels, has Moscow been so popular. One day a military plane brings the Syrian leader to the Kremlin, the next day, Syrian Kurds decide to open a branch office in a city that has worse traffic than Istanbul. So what next? A Soho House?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s maneuver to bring Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is a complete coup for Ankara.

Turkish officials started leaking and spinning the 10-country transition plan for Syria’s future on Tuesday. First, columnists began to write about it, then Reuters talked to senior diplomats. Ankara apparently had agreed to a six-month transition period – PM Ahmet Davutoglu prefers to call it an “exit period” – for al-Assad. 

The phone conversation between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin is a sign of shuttle diplomacy. Putin not only spoke with the Turkish president, but also had a brief conversation with the king of Saudi Arabia. All this is happening while they are practically sleeping in Washington.

On Friday, Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu will meet in Vienna with the foreign ministers of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the U.S. to discuss the crisis in Syria and the need for a political transition to end the conflict.

Quoting Frank Sinatra, once again we mumble the song that goes something like, “And now, the end is near, so I face the final curtain...”

Years ago, when I was a young reporter covering the Chechen crisis and its diplomatic implications, including on energy pipelines, I came across some serious resistance from the Russian side on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan Project. It almost felt like Russia was holding the PKK card in its hand to halt the project. After a series of critical reports, my colleague and I received a kind warning from Mr. Şenkal Atasagun, then the undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). 

In a very diplomatic, French way, Mr. Atasagun said this: “I cannot ask you to stop reporting about Russia. But be considerate. We are doing some very critical work about the Kurdish issue and the PKK. You will know it when the time comes.”

And indeed they did. On Oct. 9, 1998, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was forced by Hafez al-Assad to leave the building he was residing in near Damascus. The Syrian regime could not risk being Turkey’s enemy. We, as reporters, learned about his departure when he arrived at that special place – that is, Moscow.

Öcalan could not stay in Moscow too long. We never truly found out how long, where and under what circumstances he was flown out of Syria to Moscow and who greeted him. Where was he kept? What was he promised? The Russians never hinted at anything. But soon enough, Öcalan’s long trip took him first to Greece then to a considerably long and safe exile in Italy.

If he ever goes, Bashar al-Assad will probably not be as troublesome in his exit as Öcalan. After all, he is still considered to be the legitimate president of Syria represented at the United Nations. He may not have to leave at all. But the sheer presence of a power like Russia is the ultimate sign of the times in the Middle East.
When there is an elephant in the room, all others become details of his tail.