Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

Three summits in as many months between two countries would be possible, in principle, but exceptionally rare. That is what Russia and Turkey are doing when President Vladimir Putin arrives in Istanbul on October 10 to hold his third meeting since August with his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan.

In August, Erdogan had traveled to St. Petersburg; in September Putin and Erdogan sought each other out in Hangzhou, China, on the sidelines of the G-20; and, in October, a ‘world energy summit’ in Istanbul becomes the setting for Putin to drop by.

Of course, Putin has a legitimate place in a world energy summit. And it is undeniable that energy is a major vector in Russian-Turkish relations.

The construction of a US$20 billion nuclear power plant in Turkey by the Russian companies and the commencement of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, estimated to cost around US$5 billion, are certainly going to be big-ticket talking points Monday between Putin and Erdogan.

Evidently, the Istanbul talks will showcase that the Russian-Turkish ‘rapprochement’ that began in July is trotting and may begin galloping.

The two countries have a congruence of interests in advancing economic ties. Turkey’s dependence on Russian energy supplies needs no reiteration, while from the Russian viewpoint, with its economy under duress from western sanctions, Turkey provides a unique partner – a big market, which is part of the EU Customs Union and yet does not subscribe to the EU sanctions against Russia.

Both countries wish to make each other ‘stakeholders’ in cooperation. Having said that, ‘it’s Syria, stupid’!

Most certainly, the crisis in Syria – the Battle of Aleppo, in particular – will be a major topic in Putin’s discussions with Erdogan. It cannot be lost on Moscow that Turkey’s reaction to the fighting in Aleppo has been muted. Turkey is looking away with great deliberation, as if estimating that the Syrian-Russian campaign will inexorably roll on to its logical conclusion.

Unlike the United States, Turkey does not suffer a loss of face if the Syrian-Russian campaign succeeds in Aleppo. The contrast between the strident US rhetoric against Russia – with US Secretary of State John Kerry threatening to try Russians for war crimes – and the studied indifference on the part of Ankara makes a hugely significant fault line in the Syrian war.

Washington is acutely conscious of it. On Saturday, Kerry telephoned his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss Syria. Of course, Kerry had in mind the upcoming visit by Putin to Istanbul.

According to the Turkish account, Kerry and Cavusoglu talked about a timeline for “meetings about a political transition process that the two countries [US and Turkey] will hold soon.”

The US is desperately keen to get Turkey on board a refurbished platform to assert that Syrian transition cannot but exclude President Bashar al-Assad. Put differently, the US hopes that Turkey reverts to its hard line on the ‘Assad question’ (from which it has noticeably edged away in recent months, especially following the attempted coup of July 15.)

A tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow over the soul of Erdogan becomes the sub-text here, which he is sure to relish. Turkey’s centrality on the Syrian question is undeniable. (It is no less than Pakistan’s centrality to the search for any durable Afghan settlement.)

However, Turkey can be expected to negotiate hard with the US. The main sticking point today is about the US’ continued reluctance to abandon its alliance with the Syrian Kurdish militia, which Turkey alleges to be the alter-ego of the PKK, which spearheads separatist violence.

It is not easy to resolve this contradiction because the Kurdish militia also happen to be the only reliable ally that Pentagon has on the entire Syrian chessboard.

This contradiction is stalling the anticipated US-led military push to liberate Raqqa, ‘capital’ of the Islamic State, and threatening to frustrate the Obama administration’s plans of liberating Mosul before November, which would have had great optics in the US presidential election.

Putin can be expected to drive home the advantage by enticing Turkey to bandwagon with Russia (and Iran) in a robust attempt to kick start peace talks.

With Syrian forces having entered the eastern parts of Aleppo, the rebels are virtually trapped with all supply lines cut. Moscow has said it is open to the idea mooted by the UN to evacuate the rebels from Aleppo and end the fighting. If the plan takes off, Turkey has a key role to play on the ground. This is one thing.

Again, Russia has virtually imposed a ‘no-fly zone’ over Syria with its latest deployments of advanced missile defense systems. The Russian Defense Ministry openly warned on Thursday that foreign aircraft and missiles risk being shot down, since Russian personnel deployed in Syria cannot be endangered.

“That is why any missile or air strikes on the territory under control of the Syrian government will create an obvious threat for Russian military… The crews on duty will hardly have the time to calculate the missile’s flight path or try to find out their nationality,” Russian spokesman Gen. Igor Konashenko said in a hard-hitting remark.

Admittedly, the above view was an explicit warning to the Pentagon, but Turkey also becomes a concerned party insofar as its entire plan to create a 4,000 square-kilometre ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria now becomes impractical. How could there be a ‘safe zone’ without controlling air space?

On the other hand, this creates space for Russia and Turkey to arrive at some degree of understanding over the emergent alignments in northern Syria following the ‘Battle of Aleppo.’

Moscow would see that with Washington having virtually entered the ‘lame duck’ period, a Russian-American (re)engagement over Syria cannot be expected in a foreseeable future. But, on the other hand, once the Aleppo campaign is over, Russia’s interest would lie in kick-starting the peace talks.

How far Turkey is willing to work with Russia in this direction or would it prefer to carry things over to the next US presidency; what is it that Moscow can offer in return to accommodate Turkey’s legitimate concerns and interests in Syria; what could be the ‘power-sharing’ formula for northern Syria, in particular – these are some of the tantalizing questions that Putin and Erdogan would cogitate over at the Istanbul meeting, in full view of the Bosphorus.

The Reuters reported three days ago that “The data shows 10 Russian navy ships have gone through the Bosphorus en route to Syria since late September… Some of the ships… were so heavily laden the load line was barely visible above the water.”

To be sure, Turkey will have to understood what the “heavily laden” Russian ships heading for the naval base in Tartus signify – Russia is in the Syrian theater for the long haul.

But then, so is Turkey.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.