By Arab News
By Sinem Cengiz*
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said people do not become leaders due to fate or their characteristics, but due to the social circumstances at that time — zeitgeist (spirit of the time). Nowadays, Russian President Vladimir Putin is reading the zeitgeist in the Middle East. He visited three critical countries on Monday, having breakfast with his Syrian counterpart, lunch with his Egyptian counterpart and dinner with his Turkish counterpart.
In Turkey, he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was their eighth meeting in a year, indicating how much bilateral relations have improved since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara.
In Monday’s talks, agenda topics included the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, details of Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, and the latest developments in the Syrian conflict. Erdogan discussed Jerusalem with Putin by phone a day after the US decision. The two leaders agree on the matter, and Putin threw his full support behind Turkey during a press conference in Ankara.
Following the Putin-Erdogan talks, the next meeting in Astana was announced. Turkey and Russia are central to the Astana peace process, which includes Iran. As the Syrian conflict is approaching an endgame, the three countries have further engaged in a process of cooperation.
Putin’s surprise announcement of a partial withdrawal of Russia’s military from Syria may contribute to further improving Turkish-Russian relations. In his first visit to Syria since 2015, he said the war on terror there is almost complete, and the time has come for a gradual pullback of Russian forces. This means the Syrian crisis has entered a new phase in which Moscow plans to lead the process in close cooperation with Ankara and Tehran.
Turkey and Russia are planning to hold a congress of Syrian National Dialogue in Sochi, in which Moscow aims to bring together the Syrian government and opposition. The congress, according to Moscow, aims to address the adoption of a new constitution, the parameters of future Syrian statehood, and the organization of elections under UN auspices.
Turkey objects to the inclusion of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), because of their links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara sees as a terrorist organization. In light of this, Moscow has reportedly proposed that the congress include all Kurdish groups except the PYD.
With his one-day tour of the Middle East, Putin sent a clear message to all relevant actors that Russia is emerging as a regional powerbroker at a time of declining US influence. With a cautious and well-planned strategy based on shuttle diplomacy in the region, he appears willing to fill the vacuum that the Americans are leaving behind.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.