Putin and Erdogan set to meet: What you need to know

Erdogan will visit Moscow on 05 March to discuss the deteriorating relations between Turkey and Russia in Syria. Tensions are high with Putin reportedly having refused to visit Turkey to discuss Erdogan and insisting that any talks required the Turkish President to come to Moscow. So, what can we expect?

The problem

Turkey is frustrated that it has had to bear the greatest burden throughout the Syria conflict. It has had to host four million refugees, providing free healthcare, free education, free access to higher education, and in some cases free housing. Despite promises from the EU of funding and assistance with taking care of the refugees, such help has been lacking and as Turkey finds itself in an increasingly difficult economic crisis exacerbated by tensions with Washington, Erdogan finds himself having to pay an increasingly costly political price having lost Istanbul and Ankara in the municipality elections (during those elections, the subject of refugees was a hot topic).

Turkey believes that as things stand, if the Assad offensive continues, then hundreds of thousands of refugees will pour into Turkey, exacerbating the domestic economic situation. Moreover, the ensuing chaos in Northern Syria may allow the PKK and YPG to regroup (with US support) and pose a renewed security threat on the Turkish border.

The failure to find a successful solution to these two issues, as well as the lack of interest in providing effective assistance from Russia, the EU, and the US, means that Erdogan has decided to impose himself by force in order to avert a disaster that would cost him dearly both economically and politically.

Why is Russia indifferent to Turkey?

The relationship between Turkey and Russia has always been a marriage of convenience. When the two parties declared their cooperation with one another, Moscow was under US sanctions and isolated from Europe as a result of Ukraine, Crimea, and accusations of election interference, while Turkey was also under US sanctions for attacking US Kurdish allies in Northern Syria. The alienation of Turkey was such that Ankara agreed to purchase S-400s in a sign of intent that it was serious about its grievances towards NATO.

However, the situation has since changed. In the past few months, France has been lobbying fiercely for rapprochement with Moscow, declaring NATO ‘brain dead’ and that Russia is no longer an enemy. Germany has opened channels to discuss contentious issues with Moscow (although it is not as enthusiastic as Paris). Russia has also expanded its relations in the Middle East to Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, and Cairo, finding itself becoming a major player in Libya and other contentious areas. In other words, Russia is no longer as isolated as it was a year ago.

The same cannot be said for Turkey. NATO allies have been indifferent to Turkey’s plight and the US have refused to provide Patriot missiles or even ammunition to assist Turkey in its operations in Syria. For Washington, the crisis is a mess of Turkey’s own making and Erdogan should pay the price for his insubordination that led to his unilateral military expeditions in Afrin and other areas.

Turkey has also found itself isolated in the region from the Arab nations. The UAE has begun to restore relations with Damascus. Algeria the same. As Turkish soft power has soared, and as Ankara has sided with Qatar, it has drawn the ire and enmity of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE who when forced to choose between Assad and Erdogan have demonstrated that they prefer the former.

Moreover, Russia believes that Turkey has not fulfilled its obligations under the Sochi agreement. Russia believes Turkey continues to provide significant assistance to rebel groups in a bid to maintain leverage in the Syria crisis. Russia also believes it has invested far too much in Syria to see Turkey upend the balance and force a reversal for Assad forces.

Russia also knows that Turkey is isolated and has very little options. NATO and the EU continue to ignore and alienate Erdogan. Even if Turkey ‘loses’ in Syria, Putin believes Erdogan is pragmatic enough to see the bigger picture and not let Syria damage key interests elsewhere such as in the Balkans.

Lastly, Russia is furious at the challenge to its status as a superpower by what it believes to be an inferior power. This is significant and reflected in Putin’s refusal of Erdogan’s invitation to visit Turkey, and the insistence of Putin not to meet Erdogan until a military defeat of significance was delivered to Turkish forces (as was done in Saraqeb). In other words, Putin wants Erdogan to come to him humbled in a reflection of how he perceives its relations with Turkey, and Russia’s role in Syria as the sole superpower and kingmaker.

Where is the EU in all this?

The EU are not sure how they should proceed on Syria. Although a significant actor in the early days of the conflict, Russia’s warming ties with Turkey facilitated a monopolising of decision-making on Syria by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Astana and Sochi became the important cities deciding contentious matters in Syria.

However, the EU remain divided on the best approach to all issues threatening Europe. In Libya, Germany prefers a political solution while France prefers to support Haftar in his bid to topple the internationally recognised government. On Russia, France prefers to open talks with Moscow and accelerate a process of warming ties while Germany remains cautious. On the migration crisis, Germany prefers a considered approach while Italy and Greece prefer a cold no-entry approach.

France has significant differences with Turkey. It blames Turkey for funding Islamist movements in the Balkans, and backing the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli which continues to survive a French-backed onslaught from Haftar. In Algeria, France has seen its long-term ally Bouteflika fall, and Turkey being to court Algiers as an alternative power. In Senegal and other West African countries that are starting to openly challenge French influence, Turkey has been expanding investments and relations to capitalise on growing anti-French sentiment.

As a result, France firmly favours siding with Russia. Germany meanwhile has been hesitant, favouring a dialogue with Erdogan. In short, the France-Germany divide has paralyzed EU policy.

What are Turkey’s options?

Turkey is well aware of its isolation and knows that diplomacy and dialogue alone will not coax the US and the EU to support it. Although the US state department favour support for Turkey, the Pentagon’s outright refusal to provide military support while Ankara possesses S-400s rules out US military support.

On the EU however, Turkey has opened the border to set off a refugee crisis on Europe’s doorstep. With hundreds of thousands rushing to cross into Europe via the Greece-Turkey border, Erdogan has plunged Europe into a crisis of significant magnitude that the EU has scrambled to discuss its options.

As a result of Turkish pressure, Angela Merkel has announced she is prepared to back Turkey’s suggestion of a safe zone to resettle the refugees, and provide a security buffer against any potential movement by armed Kurdish groups. This is a significant victory for Erdogan as it means he will sit with Putin with a potentially mutually agreeable reconciling proposal.

What will Putin and Erdogan agree?

There are three possible scenarios. The first is that Putin agrees to the proposal for a safe zone, asks Assad to slow the offensive while the safe zone is set up, before proceeding to take Idlib. If Turkey secures a safe zone, it will have no qualms with Assad taking Idlib. Turkey’s policy in Syria only extends as far as security concerns and the economic impact of the refugee crisis. A safe zone would tackle both concerns, paving the way Assad to put the nail in the coffin of the popular uprising against him.

The second scenario is that Putin refuses the safe zone but agrees to a Sochi-style meeting to renegotiate the power-sharing agreement in Syria. New observation posts might be agreed and new negotiations would take place. Turkey may not favour this given they have been unable to secure any significant military victories in their advance on Idlib that might have given them leverage. The defeat in Saraqeb is a major setback, and the presence of Russian military police is a clear message that Russia is prepared to fight against Turkey.

The third scenario is Putin agrees to none of Turkey’s proposals and puts before him the dire situation that Erdogan finds himself in. Putin will demand that Turkey lifts support for the opposition, facilitating Assad’s takeover of Idlib. Russia may allow Turkish troops to remain in the observation posts and provide some funds to assist with looking after the refugees. Erdogan is unlikely to accept this without something that can be peddled as a ‘victory’ to a Turkish domestic audience. This may take the form of a ‘ceasefire’ and protracted negotiations while Assad’s offensive continues.