Some serious questions regarding Erdoğan’s talks with Putin

Some serious questions regarding Erdoğan’s talks with Putin

The crisis resulting from the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey last November, after it strayed into Turkish airspace while on a bombing mission against anti-Assad forces in Syria supported by Ankara, is officially over.

Judging by the pictures of the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, and the statements made, one has to conclude that Turkey and Russia have kissed and made up. 

Western diplomats and analysts are trying now to decipher how Ankara will use this. There is concern that Turkey, which is angry with the United States and Europe over developments to do with the failed coup attempt on July 15, will seek a political and military partnership with Moscow.

Encouraging that impression is to Moscow’s advantage, given that it would welcome a split between Turkey and its NATO partners. Tellingly, some Russian commentators are already jumping the gun and referring to Turkey “as a new ally in the mission to weaken the West.”

No doubt Erdoğan is also happy to show that Turkey is not dependent on the U.S. and Europe and has other options. But how realistic is that? Can Turkey really turn its back on the West, or at least on the U.S., given the way the two countries have been enmeshed in a strategic relationship for over half a century?

It is not easy to answer this in the affirmative, not just because of this history, but also because of the serious gaps between the long-term strategic interests of Moscow and Ankara. There was much talk during Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow of reviving economic ties, especially in the key energy field. 

We do not know, however, what, if anything, was agreed on the Syria crisis, for example, which is the key international issue today. After Turkey’s apology for downing the Russian jet, high-level statements from Moscow indicated that while this was welcome, ties with Ankara would ultimately depend on factors like Turkey’s position on Syria.

Put another way, Russia is expecting Ankara to revise its stance on Syria, and not the other way around, because Turkey is currently in the weaker position. Putin clearly expects Erdoğan to soften his tone on Bashar al-Assad, and ideally to make up with him as well.

That is a tall order for Erdoğan, given that he has declared the Syrian president – who unlike Erdoğan is Russia’s strategic regional ally – to be his arch enemy. And what about Russia’s demand that Ankara stop supporting anti-Assad forces in Syria that it considers to be Islamic terrorist groups? 

Can Ankara also satisfy this demand without appearing to betray its Syrian allies in the war against al-Assad? 
Even if Erdoğan were to move in the direction that Moscow wants, this would also require a hard sell as far as his Islamist supporters are concerned. These supporters are already deeply disturbed by the ongoing reconciliation with Israel. 

If Turkey were to make up with the Syrian regime, the next question would be: “Is it also going to make up with Egypt, which appeared to be an avid supporter of the failed coup attempt?” In other words will “big-picture considerations” also force Erdoğan to normalize ties with the leadership in Cairo that unseated his close ally, Mohamed Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government?

If, on the other hand, Erdoğan insists on maintaining his Islamist orientation vis-à-vis the region, will this not ultimately be an obstacle to developing the strategic ties with Moscow that his supporters are clamoring for now as a counterbalance to the West they hate so much? Russia after all, is as opposed to Islamism, regardless of its shade, as the West.

Space does not allow more of such questions to be asked here – questions which are equally important but not easy to answer. Even the questions asked, though, are enough to underline the need for realism when bandying around notions about strategic ties with Russia against the West.