Why are we talking with Russia about Syria?

Why are we talking with Russia about Syria?

After the second visit to Turkey of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry within a month, and ahead of his rumored third visit, Turkey hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week. Lavrov came to attend the third meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group, which is part of the Turkish-Russian High Level Cooperation Council. The Council was formed in May 2010 during the visit of the former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Turkey, in order to strengthen bilateral relations between the two countries. Since then, the leaders of the two countries have been meeting annually. The last meeting took place in Istanbul in December 2012 with President Vladimir Putin attending, amid the tension created by the diverging views on Syria.

Nevertheless, by setting Syria aside and separating their differences from the genuine cooperative trend between the two countries, Putin and Erdoğan were able to sign 11 additional agreements at the end of the meeting. Despite misgivings, developments since then have shown that the two states have plenty of room for cooperation. Russia is an important trading partner for Turkey, with a trade volume of around 30 billion dollars in 2012. It is also unrivalled as the main gas supplier to Turkey. Several additional projects between the two countries in the energy sector are being discussed, the last of which is the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, about which Russia is complaining that there are undue delays on the Turkish side.

The declared aim of Lavrov’s visit, according to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was to review the preparations for the fourth meeting of the Cooperation Council and to discuss bilateral cooperation issues, as well as regional and international developments. The most significant of these developments were undoubtedly the Syrian crisis and energy cooperation.

With regard to Syria, Putin, in his last visit to Turkey, put it diplomatically: “Russia and Turkey share the same goals for the future of Syria, but differ as to the methods on how to reach these goals.” In more plain language, that means that while Turkey supports toppling the al-Assad regime and going ahead with the Syrian National Council (SNC), Russia insists on negotiations between al-Assad and opposition groups to decide the future of the country. Although Putin also stated that “Russia is not the advocate of the Bashar al-Assad regime,” it is clear that Russia does not wish to see another regime change in the Middle East with outside intervention, like in Libya. Russia would not be happy to see the emergence of a pro-western regime in Syria after al-Assad leaves. Simply put, Russia has invested a lot, politically and militarily, on the current Syrian regime, and it is not ready to let it go.

That’s why Russia is acting very cautiously. Even though they started to talk with the SNC before its recent leadership change, the Russians are reluctant to recognize Ghassan Hitto, the interim leader of the SNC, as he openly rejects dialogue with al-Assad and supports international intervention. Turkey is trying to convince Russia otherwise. The main problem is still the inability of the SNC to unite all opposition groups and effectively control them. In the circumstances, Turkey’s efforts to persuade Russia are very difficult. It is clear that Russia will continue to object to international intervention and insist on negotiations with al-Assad until another leader can be found to replace him, keeping Syria out of chaos and balanced between Russia and the West.

In any case, there is currently no stomach for international intervention anywhere around the world, certainly not in the Western capitals. Perhaps it is high time for Turkey to let go of Syria in its dealings with third countries, such as Russia, and focus on more pressing bilateral issues.