Putin and Erdogan to meet in Istanbul to discuss energy issues – but Syria will be the real talking point

As relations between Russia and Turkey thaw, those between Ankara and Washington are getting chillier. The US will very much be a factor in what transpires in Istanbul this week

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The Independent Online

While the US is focused on latest revelations about Donald Trump and the turmoil they are causing in the run-up to the elections, a meeting is due to take place in Istanbul between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan which is likely to have highly significant international strategic consequences.

The official reason for the Russian President’s visit to Turkey on Monday is the World Energy Congress and there are, indeed, important energy issues which both Ankara and Moscow are keen to discuss. Talks on the Turkish Stream project, suspended after the Turks shot down a Russian warplane last November, have now resumed and will be pursued vigorously. The aim of the project is to transport 63bn cubic meters of natural gas a year to Europe through pipelines to the Bosphorous.

Russia’s transit agreement for gas with Ukraine comes to an end in two and half years’ time and with two countries at loggerheads over Russian support for Ukrainian separatists, Moscow is keen on an alternative route. For President Erdogan, along with lucrative revenues, the flow of energy can be added to the flow of refugees as a bargaining chip with the European Union.

But there are other immediate, pressing issues for the Russian and Turkish leader to discuss: the campaign against Isis in Syria and Iraq. And the US will be very much a factor in what transpires.  Ankara’s relations with Washington have cooled while those with Moscow have warmed: relations between Washington and Moscow, meanwhile, have plummeted over the pounding of Aleppo by the Syrian regime, and it is claimed, Russian warplanes.

The thaw with Moscow began after Mr Erdogan apologised for the bringing down of the plane, an admission that Turkey was suffering from the confrontation after a furious President Putin slapped on economic sanctions. The two Turkish F-16 pilots, who were praised as national heroes when they shot down the Russian Su-24, have since been arrested and accused of being part of the coup plot of three months ago. Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric who is the alleged orchestrator of the attempted takeover, was trying to provoke a conflict between the two countries, is now the Turkish government’s line.

The coup attempt has been one of the main sources of friction between Ankara and Washington. There is widespread suspicion in the Erdogan camp that the Americans at least knew about what was going to happen and failed to pass warnings on. A key centre of the putsch was Incerlik airbase which has a large American presence. Many of the 180 military commanders detained, and 149 dismissed, in the crackdown which followed had been involved in operational work with Nato. 

There is also anger that the Americans have not handed over Pennsylvania-based Mr Gulen - who denies any part in the attempted coup. The US administration says the normal judicial process is being followed, but some officials in Washington have privately expressed scepticism that the evidence against the cleric provided by Turkey is strong enough to warrant extradition and this has further antagonised Ankara.

Such is the level of distrust at present that President Erdogan accused the US authorities recently of targeting him and his family while dragging their feet over Mr Gulen. This followed the arrest of Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, in Miami on charges of violating American sanctions against Tehran. The Turkish leader accused US officials dealing with the case of trying to implicate him and his wife over donations Mr Zarrab made to an educational charity called Togem to which Mr Erdogan and his wife are allegedly connected.

It is against this background that Ankara has sent armour, air power and troops into Syria. The aim, President Erdogan has announced, is to clear Isis and the fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) an alliance of Syrian Arabs and Kurds from Turkey’s borders.

The Kurdish forces are viewed by the Americans as its most effective allies against Isis, but warnings by Washington not to strike against them have been ignored by the Turkish military. President Erdogan has also indicated that the next target for his forces and allied units of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) would be the city of Al-Bab, the gateway to the Isis capital Raqqa. The US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, has stressed that Washington does not want to see Turkish forces or the FSA in Al-Bab. The YPG is also trying to get there and, in Ankara’s eyes, this is more proof of American support for the Kurds.

Mr Erdogan has declared that Turkey would be a willing partner to the US on the assault on Raqqa – as long as Kurdish forces are not involved. Hillary Clinton, who appears to be headed for the White House as the campaign of Mr Trump – an admirer of President Putin – implodes, has stressed that  America must “support our Arab and Kurdish partners to be able to actually take out Isis in Raqqa”.

Western powers and Russia clash at UN over Syria

The Turks want to establish a “safety zone” inside Syria, something Ankara had long wanted and US and the West have steadfastly opposed. Mr Erdogan has said: “An area of 900 square kilometres has been cleared of terror so far. We may extend this area to 5,000 square kilometres as part of a safe zone”. 

Mr Erdogan called Mr Putin (who had called the Turkish leader a “dear friend” after a recent meeting in St Petersburg), immediately after Turkish forces had captured the Syrian town of Jarablus from Isis, another strategic point the Kurds have been seeking to take. 

The Kremlin has not subsequently raised any major objections to what the Turks are doing in Syria and the Russian military’s chief of general staff, Valery Gerasimov, visited Ankara recently to be briefed by his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akar, on the Syrian mission: Operation Euphrates Shield. Preliminary talks were held, say officials, in co-ordinating action. 

Talha Kose, an academic and senior member of a think tank, SETA, which was founded by President Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, said: “The Russians are not objecting to what Turkey is doing in northern Syria. This is partly because they are really focusing on Aleppo now, but also what Turkey is doing is not harming their interests. Turkey sees what America is doing in Syria as harming Turkish interests.”

The coming military offensive in Iraq, too, will be raised at the meeting between the two Presidents in Istanbul, say Turkish officials. American and Iraqi forces are preparing the launch the first stage of the operation to recapture Mosul from Isis in around nine days: Mr Erdogan has insisted that Turkish forces "will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation, and no one can prevent us from participating”.  He also claimed that there are plans for Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to participate in the mission “something we’ll never accept".

But neither the US or Iraq want Turkish participation in Mosul and Baghdad has accused Ankara of breaching Iraqi sovereignty by basing troops in Bashiqa, north of the city, where they are providing training for Sunni militias. Colonel John Dorian, the American spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, stated  “the Turkish military force in the Iraqi territory is not part of the coalition force, it has not been there at the invitation and permission of the Iraqi government and therefore it is illegal”.

It is unlikely that Mr Putin would be able to help Mr Erdogan on this one. The Turkish leader has declared that only Sunnis – Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds – should be allowed to live in Mosul after it is liberated from Isis. The demand has been dismissed by Iraq’s Shia dominated government and Russia is not going to ask Shia groups, some of which are led by Iranians, to disappear. Tehran, valued ally of Bashar al-Assad and the Kremlin remains very much a player in the complex power politics in this volatile and violent region.

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