Turkey’s prime minister will visit the Russian capital Wednesday, as the two countries remain at diplomatic loggerheads over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The deepening crisis in Syria is expected to feature prominently during Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s one-day visit to Moscow.
Erdogan has turned his back on his former Syrian ally and called for Assad’s removal. But Russian President Vladmir Putin has continued to protect the Syrian government from harsher sanctions at the U.N. Security Council.
Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul based research center EDAM weighs in on what he thinks will be the meeting’s key focus.
“The objective of Erdogan will be first of all to assess Russia’s position and secondly to try and understand what it will take for Moscow to change its position on Syria and whether Turkey can play an active role in trying to influence Russian behavior over Syria,” Ulgen said.
Semih Idiz, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says there is little hope of any breakthrough, but that the visit is still important.
“I think the only thing left is to try to create some positive energy in Turkish-Russian relations given that the Syrian issue, and perhaps issues pertaining to the Middle East generally, have proved to be a wedge in bilateral relations with Moscow,” Idiz said.
Moscow and Ankara historically have been rivals. But in the past few years, cooperation in trade and energy politics has drawn them closer.
Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal says differences over Syria won’t affect relations.
“Look, with any relationship with any country, you may have a perfect relationship, which we have with Russia, but we also have issues (in which) you don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s like that. I don’t think it will affect or have the possibility to affect Russian-Turkish relations,” Unal said.
Diplomatic columnist Idiz said one of the key factors behind the warming of Russian-Turkish relations, and its capacity to withstand the current tensions, is the chemistry between the two leaders.
“The two leaders represent a very warm image in terms of their interaction and this will continue to certain extent. They’re both authoritarian leaders with a charismatic appeal. They both have authoritarian tendencies. They both like to bang their fists on the table. I think it’s a personality thing, because the two leaders have a common understanding,” said Idiz.
However, Idiz says both men are aware of their differences — particularly in the South Caucasus region, where their respective loyalties to Armenia and Azerbaijan divide them.
“This is where Turkey and Russia have a role to play in trying to stabilize the region, given that Russia is strongly behind Armenia and Azerbaijan looks to Turkey. And so Russia and Turkey are in the position to cool (the) sides down if things get out of hand. And I think Ankara and Moscow are trying hard to make sure it doesn’t,” said Idiz.
This week, Russia made clear it has no plans to back sanctions against Assad, saying it will not agree to negotiations that make his departure a precondition. As a result, political observers believe Erdogan’s visit to Moscow is unlikely to weaken Moscow’s support for the Syrian government. But it appears both sides are determined not to allow Syria to undermine an increasingly close relationship.