By Yigal Schleifer
Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought his energy minister along on a one-day visit July 18 to Moscow, it’s safe to assume that rather than oil and gas prices, the question of how to resolve the crisis in Syria dominated the discussion between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Ankara and Moscow have adopted dramatically divergent positions on how to deal with the crisis, with Turkish leaders publicly calling for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down, and Turkey serving as a staging ground for the Syrian opposition. Russia, on the other hand, has emerged as the Assad regime’s most significant international backer.
Although this difference of opinion has yet to result in any sort of visible rupture, analysts warn that the crisis in Syria – along with a handful of other percolating regional issues where the two countries’ interests don’t align – has the potential to undermine Ankara’s post-Cold War efforts to strengthen and deepen its political and economic ties with Russia.
“I think the Syria crisis exposes that there are fundamental divergences of interests in their relations that I think make it less likely that this is going to be the marriage that many said it was going to be,” says Stephen Blank, a professor of National Security Studies at the US Army War College in Pennsylvania.
“I think that the Syria crisis – in conjunction with other issues such as Cyprus, NATO missile defense and pipeline politics, all of which put Turkey against Russia – is going to erode substantially the amity between the two countries,” added Blank. [Editor’s Note: Blank contributes occasional commentaries to EurasiaNet].
Just a few months ago, many Turks had good reason to believe their country and Russia were heading toward a golden age in their relations, which had for decades been dominated by the divisions of the Cold War. As one overly optimistic Turkish paper described it only this past January, Turkey was “now a strategic partner of Moscow.”
Business between the two counties has boomed in the last decade, with Russia now representing Turkey’s largest trade partner. Between 2001 and 2011, Turkish exports to Russia grew 548 percent, from $0.9 billion to $5.9 billion, while Russian exports to Turkey – mostly gas and oil – increased almost 600 percent, rising from $3.4 billion to $23.9 billion.
The two countries, in recent years, also mutually eased visa requirements and created several high-level intergovernmental working groups. On the energy front, beyond Russia becoming Turkey’s largest supplier of gas, Turkish officials signed a deal in 2010 for a Russian consortium to build the country’s first nuclear power plant.
The situation in Syria, though, has clearly scrambled Ankara’s plans for its ties with Moscow. While Erdogan and Putin both reaffirmed during their Moscow meeting their commitment to further increase bilateral trade volume, they remained conspicuously quiet about the question of Syria and how to deal with the strife there.
Russia is not the only country with which Turkey has seen its relations suffer because of the uprising in Syria. Ankara’s once warming ties with Iran, which has also come out in support of Assad, have also recently become strained, although to a much greater degree than those with Russia.
Aware of the depth of their trade and energy relations, Ankara and Moscow have for now compartmentalized the question of Syria, says Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and head of the Istanbul-based research institute EDAM. This, he says, has kept the disagreement over the issue of Syria from “contaminating” other area of bilateral relations. “I think the compartmentalization will be maintained if and until there is a military intervention in Syria,” said Ulgen.
Ankara has already shown some indications of losing its patience with Moscow. Although he didn’t name any names, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu earlier in July told an international gathering on Syria; “We should increase pressure on the Syrian regime and those who support that regime, increasingly isolate them.”
And after the Syrian downing of a Turkish fighter jet in June, Erdogan was quoted by the Turkish press as dismissing the Russian Foreign Ministry for issuing a statement that downplayed the incident. Erdogan at the time said Moscow was acting “as a mouthpiece” for the Assad regime.
In a certain way, it’s likely that Turkish-Russian relations already arrived at a turning point some time ago. Prior to the start of the Arab uprisings last year, there were still some lingering questions – fueled by the lack of progress in Turkey’s European Union bid and by disagreements with Washington, particularly over how to deal with Iran – about whether Ankara was still committed to its traditional alliance with NATO and the West. As some in Turkey and Russia put it, the two countries would soon join up to create an “axis of the excluded.” That notion was laid to rest in Libya.
“There was always the hope in Moscow that they could somehow woo Turkey and exploit the rift between Turkey and the United States and the EU. I think Moscow was pretty shocked when Turkey came on board in Libya,” says Fiona Hill, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
Indeed, since the NATO-led operation in Libya last year, Turkey’s ties with the Atlantic Alliance – as well as with Washington – have deepened. Ankara’s role in NATO has become more prominent, particularly with regards to the deteriorating situation in Syria. Like it or not, Ankara may find that it and Moscow are again standing on opposite sides of what should be familiar ideological and geopolitical fault-lines.
“Turkey is really very much with the West in the case of Syria and is on the side of the United States and NATO opposite Russia,” says Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs columnist with the Turkish daily Milliyet. “In a way, the Syria crisis has led to a reprise of the Cold War and Turkey has taken its traditional place in this division.”
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist who focuses on Turkey. He is the editor of Eurasianet’s Turkofile and Kebabistan blogs.