The tomato issue

The tomato issue

It was the tomato that left its mark on the meeting at Sochi between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was announced that the two leaders were able to reach a consensus on a complicated and critical matter like Syria but were not able to agree on the one issue on tomatoes.  

When Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın, whom we are used to seeing with an always serious expression, shared a picture of a tomato on Twitter; the tomato became the most popular topic of the day. 

Though, even if the Sochi meeting hadn’t taken place, we would still be talking about the tomato in its role in the 1.31 percent inflation in April. 

Thus, it has become a must to write about the tomato over our relations with Russia and the Syria issue.    

One day before Erdoğan and Putin’s meeting, a Western diplomat, who knows the matter very well, shared a detail with me that was not so important at that moment, but it became interesting and significant after the meeting, because it was related to the tomato. 

The diplomat I spoke to drew attention to the fact that at certain regions under the control of the opposition in Syria, local people were growing several fruits and vegetables, mainly tomatoes. Nothing is interesting about this so far, but tradesmen from the regions under Bashar al-Assad’s control bought these products and imported them to Russia, elevating the situation to an interesting level. 

While Russia is importing fruits and vegetables from countries such as Uzbekistan, and even importing tomatoes grown in areas under the control of groups they are fighting against, how realistic is it to tell Turkey, “We are now growing tomatoes ourselves; we do not need any from you?” 

In these circumstances, in the face of Putin’s continuation of the Turkish tomato embargo, let us take a closer look at the matter.

To better understand what the outcome of the Sochi meeting means for Turkey, let us first remember what Turkey’s demands in Syria are: al-Assad should go; clashes should end; People’s Protection Units/ Democratic Union Party (YPG/PYD) should be regarded as terror organizations; the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Qaeda and affiliated groups should be cleansed without the help of the YPG/PYD. 

Now, let us assess the “consensus” reached over these demands:  

- The U.S., with only the priority of cleansing ISIL-affiliated groups and al-Qaeda, started questioning the future of al-Assad after its chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun and switched to Turkey’s side. On the other hand, Putin did not take a step backward in its position on al-Assad. 

- Thanks to Turkey and Russia’s cooperation, 40,000 civilians were safely evacuated from Aleppo. The de-escalation zone consensus at Sochi has critical significance especially in terms of the future of Idlib, the biggest stronghold of the rebels. As long as al-Assad does not break the ceasefire, it will be the most important gain for Turkey. 

- A photo of YPG/PYD members arm in arm with Russian soldiers taken before the Erdoğan-Putin meetings was meaningful. When Erdoğan gave the picture to Putin, he said he would look into it. The relationship that was formed leading to that picture; could it ever be possible that it was formed without Putin’s knowledge? Daily Hürriyet writer Verda Özer wrote that Ankara regarded the Russia-YPG relationship as an “instrumental relationship.” We should also not forget that if the ceasefire is broken in Idlib in the future, if a north front is opened to Idlib from Afrin, then the Russia-YPG/PYD relationship will stop being an “instrumental” one. 

- Certain opposition groups supported by Turkey are still regarded as terrorist organizations by Russia. Russia had also contributed to the failure of Turkey’s Manbij plan. The Western diplomat we spoke to earlier pointed out that the international coalition may start the Raqqa operation in June. This means that Turkey does not have time to realize its Raqqa plans. 

In Sochi, the greatest gain has been “de-escalation.” In bilateral relations, except for Russian tourists turning their routes to Turkey, there has not been any concrete outcome in favor of Turkey that we could call “normalization.” Russia’s visa obligation on Turks, restrictions on vegetable and fruit exports, and the entry of Turkish capital and labor force to Russia are continuing.