Erdogan, Putin and a mysterious closed-door summit
Erdogan, Putin and a mysterious closed-door summit
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Sochi late last month. After the meeting, the two leaders departed from their usual practice of holding a joint conference or making statements to the media. Both Erdogan and Putin had signaled in advance that the meeting would be held entirely one-on-one. This prior notice made it clear that the content of the discussion would include topics that they did not want to share with the public.
There was a lot of speculation about what could have been discussed during the closed-door session. They include such topics as Turkey’s purchase of a new S-400 air defense system from Russia, the construction of two additional nuclear power plants, cooperation in the defense industry and on warplanes. , submarines and the space industry, and more. These topics do not need to be discussed behind closed doors. On the contrary, they must be publicized in order to demonstrate the level of cooperation between the two countries.
The most likely reason for the confidentiality was an agreement on critical developments in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, where the Syrian army has stepped up its attacks on the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham terrorist organization. Turkey has more than 30 military detachments scattered at various points in this province. Radical opposition factions are moving to areas near these Turkish detachments because they believe the Syrian army wants to avoid an unnecessary confrontation with the Turkish army. However, this puts the Turkish presence at risk and three of its soldiers were killed last month.
The most important reason for Turkey’s military presence in Idleb is to interrupt a Kurdish corridor that would stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean. Russia is inclined to tolerate a temporary Turkish military presence in the province, but does not want to see it established in Syria, because Moscow sees Damascus as a future client.
An agreement was reached in 2018 in the Kazakh capital of Astana (now renamed Nur-Sultan) between Turkey, Russia and Iran, resulting in a ceasefire and the creation of a zone of deconfliction in Idlib . Turkey and Russia are to some extent in breach of their deconfliction obligations. Ankara proved too slow to disarm radical factions, while Moscow attacked members of the armed opposition without paying too much attention to the fact that civilians were also affected.
Due to the confidentiality of their meeting, we do not know if any decisions have been made on Idlib or Cyprus, or even both.
Returning from Sochi, Erdogan told reporters that Turkey remains committed to every decision taken with Russia on Syria and that there is no backsliding. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that “these terrorist groups must be expelled from Idlib in whatever form, and the sooner it is done the better.” Since both sides claim to have kept their promises, it means there is no full deal.
The statement about the summit came from Aleksandr Dugin, a close advisor to Putin and one of Russia’s top geopolitics experts. The day after the summit, he made a statement that drew more attention than the meeting itself. He said on Turkish TV channel Ulusal Kanal and two Turkish-language newspapers, Aydinlik and Turkiye, that the two leaders were developing a new roadmap for the region. He said Erdogan understood the importance of Crimea to Russia and Putin noticed the importance Turkey attaches to the solution of the Cyprus problem. He hinted that if Turkey changed its position on Crimea, Russia could recognize Turkish sovereignty over northern Cyprus.
The traditions of the Russian state do not easily allow a presidential adviser to divulge his personal opinion without having first approved it by the state bureaucracy. Therefore, if Dugin expresses Putin’s point of view with this statement, it may be a tectonic move for the region.
Turkey strongly supports a two-state solution on Cyprus, with the Ankara-backed government controlling the north of the island and a Greek Cypriot state in the south. If this solution were supported by Russia, it could pave the way for the recognition of northern Cyprus by other countries. If, on the contrary, Moscow supported the reunification of the island, this united Cyprus would automatically become a member of the EU and eventually of NATO.
If such an agreement were indeed negotiated at the Erdogan-Putin summit, it would have significant repercussions on Turkey’s domestic policy. Given the steadily declining political support for Erdogan, such a deal could result in a dramatic increase in his favor.
Due to the summit’s confidentiality, we do not know if any decisions have been made on Idlib or Cyprus, or even both. If so, it certainly deserves such confidentiality, as these movements could redraw the geostrategic map of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
• Yasar Yakis is a former Turkish Foreign Minister and a founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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