What did Erdoğan really get from Putin?

What did Erdoğan really get from Putin?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is pleased with the results of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort of Sochi last week. After his talks with Erdoğan, Putin announced that relations between the two countries “had been totally repaired.” He was referring to the nosedive that relations took after Turkey downed a Russian jet in November 2015. 

The two topics that reportedly dominated the talks in Sochi were Syria and economic ties. Whether Erdoğan got what he wanted in terms of economic cooperation is the subject of another article. It seems though that there will be no automatic lifting of all embargoes imposed on Turkey after the downing of the jet. In other words there is still work to be done.

As far as Syria is concerned the picture is more blurred. For example, Erdoğan said he presented pictures showing Russian forces standing guard in northern Syria with Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that Ankara says is a terrorist organization.

Erdoğan told reporters later that Putin had said he would look into the matter. What that means is not clear. We have nothing from the Russian side to clarify the matter. What is known is that there is nothing odd in Russian soldiers and YPG fighters standing side by side. 

Moscow does not recognize the YPG as a terrorist organization. Worse for Ankara is the fact that Moscow does not even recognize the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist group and has said so. So it seems Erdoğan is unlikely to get what he wants from Putin regarding the YPG.

The highpoint of Erdoğan’s visit appears to be the announcement that Turkey, Russia and Iran will be sponsoring four “de-escalations zones” in Syria between the al-Assad regime and opposition fighters. The details of this and how it will be enforced are yet to be announced. 

It appears at first glance that Russia has come around to Turkey’s long-expressed desire to see safe zones in Syria, but that is clearly not the case. Those zones were proposed against the al-Assad regime whereas these require cooperation with the regime under Russian and Iranian auspices. Turkey, in other words, remains the weak link in this project, if indeed it can be implemented.

Meanwhile, not all the Syrian opposition groups supported by Turkey are happy about this proposal. Even the YPG is against it, saying it will divide Syria, which is ironic because that is exactly what Ankara is accusing the Syrian Kurds of trying to do.

It has also been announced that U.S. jets will not be allowed to fly over those zones, so it also seems as if Moscow is trying to score points against Washington at Turkey’s expense. 

Whatever the case may be, if these zones can be established and seen to be working, they will be a plus for efforts aimed at ending this bloody conflict. But that remains a very big “if.”

It has also been announced that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levent (ISIL), the al-Nusra Front, under any of its names, and similar groups will be excluded from the “de-escalation” deal. 

It is not clear, however, what the status of the YPG will be. Ankara will no doubt reserve the right to strike at YPG targets, but it is not immediately apparent how it intends to do this as long as this groups enjoys political and military support from Moscow. 

Russia reacted angrily to the recent strike by Turkey against the group in Syria, killing a number of its fighters, and said this was “unacceptable.”

There is also the risk for Ankara that having accepted the notion of a number of such “zones,” Russia and the U.S. will also insist that areas presently held by the YPG, and which are free of conflict, should also be officially declared “safe zones.”

Apart from anything else, this would also prevent Turkish jets flying over YPG positions and work to the advantage of the Syrian Kurds that Ankara is determined to undermine.

Even these few questions make one wonder what Erdoğan got out of Putin regarding Turkey’s aims in Syria. It looks like Putin got more out of these talks than his guest...