News / Europe

Putin's Turkey Visit Could Smooth Syria Relations

Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, November 8, 2012.  Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, November 8, 2012.
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Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, November 8, 2012.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on during a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow, November 8, 2012.
Dorian Jones
— Russian President Vladmir Putin is scheduled to visit Turkey on December 3.  The visit comes as the two countries remain at odds over Syria, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Ankara the Syrian rebels.  Despite such differences, trade is continuing to grow between the two countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be hosted by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul for his one-day visit.  According to diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz for the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News, the two leaders have built up a strong personal relationship.  But Idiz warns deep differences exist over Syria, with Erdogan taking an increasingly tough stance against Moscow.

"[Erdogan's] party congress accused Iran and Russia, saying who supports the oppressors in Syria will pay the price in the future," Idiz noted.  "It's clear the two countries have a very different attitude toward Syria and this is going to land to them in confrontational situations in the future."

Relations were dealt a further blow in October, when Turkish fighter jets forced the landing of a Syrian-bound passenger jet flying from Moscow last October.  Ankara claimed it was carrying weapons for the Syrian government, but has so far failed to provide any evidence.  Moscow denied the allegations.

Moscow has also strongly criticized Ankara's request that NATO deploy patriot missiles to protect it against any possible strike by Syria.

But this week Prime Minister Erdogan appeared to soften his stance, claiming Moscow could play a key role to resolving the Syrian crisis.

Sinan Ulgen is head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam.

"They [Turkey] also realize that if Russia does not change its position, the dynamics on the ground are not likely to change," Ulgen said.  "If Russia continues to support the Assad regime, Assad will continue to hold on to power."

While Turkish observers don't expect Moscow to immediately end its support for the Syrian regime, there is increasing speculation that the Russians are starting to distance themselves from Damascus.

A Turkish official said Ankara is looking to Moscow to soften its outright opposition to future Syrian humanitarian interventions or sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.  As a permanent member, Russia has used its veto power three times to prevent tough action against the government of Syrian President Assad.

While differences remain between Russia and Turkey over Syria, bilateral trade has been largely unaffected.  International Relations expert Soli Ozel, at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, says trade will be an important part of President Putin's visit.

"The Russians are building the first nuclear reactor," Ozel explained.  "They want to build the second nuclear reactor.  There are a lot energy issues between the two, so there is plenty that the two countries can discuss."

According to a Turkish official, during President Putin's visit to Istanbul at least 12 bilateral agreements will be signed, most of which will be related to trade.  Diplomatic columnist Idiz says Putin's visit indicates the strength of bilateral ties.

"It signifies that it's an ongoing relationship, and that relationship is obviously trying to a bolster trade relationship even more," Idiz added.  "So the prospects don't look all that bad, except the situation has to be managed, because clearly Russia is backing Syria, and Turkey is at odds over that."

The ability of the two countries to compartmentalize their differences over Syria is being seen by analysts as an indication of the underlying resilience of bilateral ties.  President Putin's visit to Istanbul is expected to continue building on that relationship.

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