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Putin and Erdogan Do a Deal (sort of)

On 15 August, the Russian and Turkish Presidents met in St Petersburg. This was their first encounter since their two countries’ bilateral relations went very seriously south after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015.

The two leaders made all sorts of nice noises about their commitment to repairing their relations after the fall-out of recent months. But it was clear that Putin, interested in wresting Turkey from its western moorings of now well over half a century, felt that he was in the driver’s seat.

Support for Erdogan in the Turkish opinion polls may be at record highs. But the coup and counter-coup in Turkey have put the country on the ropes. The army hierarchy has been fractured, so too that of the police. The country’s judiciary, schools and universities, hospitals and businesses have lost tens of thousands of people accused of being partisans of a Pennsylvania-based cleric by the name of Fethullah Gulen in a not very ingenuous attempt to create an illiberal Islamist democracy. Gulen is at his worst to the Sunni Muslims what Aga Khan is to the Shiite Ismailis – a Muslim version of the Masons, if you will.

Turkey’s prisons have now been emptied of petty and perhaps not-so-petty criminals to make way for the Gulenist multitudes that have been accused of supporting the coup and swept up in the counter-coup. This is not a development that would-be Turkey bound tourists from Western Europe will applaud. Notwithstanding the daily demonstrations in his favour that have followed the failed coup, Erdogan’s Turkey is dangerously close to being a failed state. Putin understands this all too well.

So while the Putin-Erdogan meeting on 15 August resulted in commitments to put back on track the thriving economic relations that the two countries enjoyed prior to their bilateral crisis, Putin has admonished that this will not happen overnight. The Russian President has only committed Russia to a gradual abandonment of the sanctions that it had imposed on Turkey after the November 2015 shoot-down. This involves such issues as a project that would take Russian energy westwards to Europe, Turkish fruit and vegetable exports to Russia and Russian tourist charter flights to Turkey. Ending sanctions would have beneficial economic effects for both sides. But it seems clear that Russia will only dismantle them if and when judges that Turkey is correspondingly worthy.

This is not to say that the Turkish President has got nothing in return. In the lead-up to the Petersburg meeting, Putin also met with his counterpart from Azerbaijan, with which Turkey has long maintained privileged ties. Post-meeting rumours have suggested that Moscow is applying pressure on Armenia to make territorial concessions to Azerbaijan over the territory that it won during their bilateral conflicts that accompanied the last years of the Soviet Union and the first ones of its successor regime.

This is potentially a serious setback for Armenia. Since well before Soviet power, Yerevan has assumed that Moscow would unconditionally back it in any confrontation with the Azeris. In recent years, it has had to contend with growing Russian arm sales to Azerbaijan. Notwithstanding this, it has felt confident that it could continue to count on Russia, a fellow Orthodox state and a co-member in the Moscow-led Euro-Asian Economic Community, a would-be Russia-led answer to the EU. But if Russia is rethinking its allegiances in the Caucasus, Armenia has no obvious place to turn.

Then there is the Kurdish question, of which there are many strands. Ankara cooperates with the Iraqi Kurds, rather more than less. Ankara, after a fleeting attempt to make peace with its own Kurdish community has been for the last year or so on a war footing with it. Ankara also considers as enemy elements the Syrian Kurds that have carved out a huge stretch of territory along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. These same Kurds have come to be the Americans’ most effective allies in their efforts to take down ISIS in the region.

On 18 August, the Syrian government bombed Syrian Kurd positions after having systematically avoided to do so since the beginning of the country’s civil war. This was probably agreed in St Petersburg in the private meeting between Putin and Assad that followed their official one. With the attacks from Damascus, the Turks and the Russians have indirectly launched an assault on the Syrian Kurds. But with Assad’s Syria doing the bombing, both the Turks and the Russians have deniability.

The next day Russian planes bombed targets in Syria from a base in Iran. The message to Turkey is that you are either with the broad coalition that Russia has put together or against it. Turkey seems to have gotten the message. The Turkish Prime Minister has just met with his Iranian counterpart.

At the same time, Turkey should understand that its relationship with Moscow in resolving conflict situations is most likely not to be any more successful than the American-Russian one has been. Moscow has continued to privilege bombing of Syrian-resistance groups supported by the US while their foreign secretaries have pursued their never-ending discussions about how to take joint action against ISIS in the country. There is little reason to expect that the Moscow-Ankara relationship should develop any differently.

And the larger picture? Putin wants to establish Russia as a major power in the Mediterranean, not only using the beachheads he has established in Syria, Lebanon and Iran but also leveraging his new entente with Erdogan to work for a situation in which Russia can control or co-determine access to and from the Black Sea through the Turkish-controlled Dardanelles. Ankara’s current weakness, coupled with American and European disconnection from strategic reality, provides him with the opportunity to realize gains that have eluded Russia for centuries.

The fate of Syrian President Assad in all this is unclear. Before Turkey took aim at the Assad regime, Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart were politically on good terms. So Assad remaining President is not necessarily an impediment to Turkey improving ties with the states supporting the Syrian dictator. Erdogan and Putin have also, after a very bad patch, become “friends” again.

Then too, Assad could also be helped to have an accident.

Whether Turkey will fully embrace Moscow’s offer is still unclear. It needs to be acknowledged, however, that with his tactical maneuvers Putin is refashioning allegiances in the Middle East – and in the process kicking a lot of sand in western faces.

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