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The Syrian crisis: Implications for Turkish-Russian relations

On Tuesday, during his weekly speech to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) group in the Turkish parliament, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his strong statements on Syria. While his call for humanitarian corridors to bring aid to Syrian people captured international attention, his talk also included an indirect yet equally strong challenge to third party countries involved in the crisis…

Ziya Meral

After expressing his grave concern over the escalation of violence against civilians, the Turkish premier unleashed a heavy criticism of countries that „passively watch“, „give permission to“ or „encourage“ what is happening in Syria. He warned that their hesitancy to provide a solution will be „a dark stain in their history“ and that the „single drop of the blood of an innocent child is many times [more important] than any kind of strategy, power and self-interested ambitions.“

While Erdogan and the Turkish government regularly make clear their stand on the atrocities of Syrian President Bashar Assad and overtly criticize the failures of international bodies, their references to specific countries behind such failures are almost always indirect–albeit increasingly strong and loud.

Turkish reluctance to publicly name these countries–i.e., Russia and Iran–is understandable. As Turkey tries to navigate through its soft cold war with Iran amidst attempts to galvanize nuclear negotiations, it simply cannot afford to clash with Iran publicly. A similar reason explains why Turkey has limited its criticism of Russian involvement with Syria to closed door conversations and indirect public language.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkey in 2004, he was the first Russian head of state to visit the country in 32 years. Subsequent high-level visits between the two countries resulted in the signing of a joint declaration in 2009 between Putin’s successor President Dmitry Medvedev and President Abdullah Gul, as well as the creation of the High-Level Cooperation Council in May 2010.

The council aims to enhance economic, diplomatic and cultural relations between the two countries. In line with the aims of the council, in January 2011 foreign ministers Ahmet Davutoglu and Sergey Lavrov signed the Strategic Planning Group Meeting Protocol and, one year later, the second meeting of the planning group was held in Moscow with Davutoglu’s participation.

All of these high-level structures are starting to show themselves in hard currency. The trade volume between Russia and Turkey rose from $11 billion in 2004 to $25 billion in 2010. Both countries have declared a commitment to increase trade to the value of $100 billion dollars by 2015.

However, just as the so-called „Arab spring“ has soured the budding romance between Syria and Turkey, there are underlying anxieties over how long Turkey can keep calm about Russian involvement in Syria.

From the Turkish point of view, Russian interests in Syria are thin. A small symbolic naval base, seemingly lucrative yet limited arms sales, and assertion of the usual bravado of „standing against colonial western interventionism“ are no compensation for what Russia stands to lose through its dangerous Syria policy.

In contrast, for Turkey, what happens next in Syria represents more than a distant humanitarian crisis. With a lengthy land border between the two countries, the implications of a large-scale refugee influx, the potential of a prolonged civil war, all the ills that come with having a failed state as a neighbor, and the possible spillover of Syrian unrest into Turkey, the Syria question is a top foreign policy concern for Turkey.

The AKP government adopted a strong public stand against the Assad regime and burned bridges painstakingly built since 1999 as soon as it became clear that the Assad family would not pursue reforms and stop its violence. Turkey embraced great economic losses in the process, but it has stuck to its position that the Assad regime must go and championed many of the international initiatives against the regime.

Will Turkey soon adopt a similar bold stand against Russia, which has direct culpability in the deaths of thousands of innocent Syrians? The answer is: not likely. Turkey is pursuing quiet and friendly pressure on Russia to change Moscow’s position. The last example of this were the recent gentle statements by President Gul, who said that ultimately Russia will see that it has no choice but to join diplomatic efforts to force Assad from his post.

When Russia will finally accept this path and what kind of solution it will back is far from clear. Now that the predestined Russian elections are over, a teary-eyed Putin might indeed be moved to heed Erdogan’s exhortation that the blood of an innocent child is much more valuable than any possible short-term benefits Russia might achieve from the suffering of Syrians. If this kind of argument does not work, Putin might otherwise soon accept that Russia stands to lose far more than it will ever gain by backing Assad.-Published 8/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ziya Meral is a London-based esearcher and author of the report „Prospects or Turkey“.