On Friday, the Turkish delegation led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived Moscow for talks with the Russian counterparts.
The Turkish delegation includes top political and military figures: Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak, Defense Minister Fikri Isik, Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci, Agriculture Minister Faruk Celik, Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avcı, Transport and Maritime Affairs Minister Ahmet Arslan, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.
The situation in Syria and Iraq are the main agenda of the talks. Erdogan plans to have detailed discussions concerning Iraq and Syria during his meeting with Putin, spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın told reporters on March 9, adding that the results of the recent Antalya meeting of the top US, Russian, and Turkish generals would also be taken into consideration.
Ankara desires a diplomatic consolidation of its military gains in northern Syria. The Turkish leadership is specifically concerned with the following:
- Military operations by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). These units are now de-facto backed up by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russian Defense Ministry. The Syrian and Russian military presence west of the YPG-held town of Manbij greatly complicates any prospective Turkish military actions against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
- Growing activity of the Russian military forces and its operations across Syria. Ankara is especially concerned over the deployment of some units of the Russian Military Police and Special Operations Forces and Russian military advisors at the contact line with the Turkish Armed Forces and pro-Turkish militant groups (the so-called “Free Syrian Army”).
- Prospective operations against ISIS, particularly the upcoming advance on Raqqah: who will be involved and what roles they will play.
- The Russian support for Syrian reconciliation, which would likely lead to at least the creation of a Kurdish cultural autonomy within Syria.
Strategically, Erdogan and his colleagues are concerned over the growing “de-facto” influence of Russia and Iran in the Middle East. In a similar vein, Turkey seeks to expand its own power in Syria and Iraq in every possible way. Here Turkey and Israel seem to be on the same page.
In this light, it is interesting to recall statements made by Turkish Ambassador to Israel Kemal Ökem earlier this week.
Ökem said that Turkey and Israel will be the primary beneficiaries of maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity.
“The territorial integrity and political unity [of Syria] needs to be maintained. This is not only needed for Turkey and Israel but also for the international community. But as countries to the north and south of Syria, Turkey and Israel will be the two countries that will initially benefit from Syria staying together and preserve its political unity,” Ökem said. As to security issues the envoy added that threats toward Turkey and Israel were likely to come from the land, not from the air or seas.
On the one hand the assertion of territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic is at odds with the real actions of Turkey on the ground. On the other hand, it fully corresponds to the maximum objectives of Turkish foreign policy in the region:
- To depose President Bashar al-Assad;
- To turn Syria into an Islamic parliamentary republic;
- To push a major pro-Turkish political block into the Syrian parliament (at least 30% of the seats);
- To form a coalition government led by a pro-Turkish prime minister, which will benefit to interests of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Israel;
- To expel Kurdish political entities and Kurds from the Syrian politic, in general;
- To re-launch the Qatar-Turkey pipeline project.
If Ankara is not able to achieve its maximum goals in Syria, it will try at least to set up a Turkish-controlled quasi-state in northern Syria. Then, Turkey will likely try to annex this area.
The Erodgan government is ready to allow more latitude in order to achieve its goals in Syria. Turkish leadership has prepared a bundle agreement which it believes should be of benefit to Russia.
However, this looks questionable because Turkey does depend on Russia economically, while the reverse is not true. This is especially clear in the energy and tourism sectors. Statements of Turkey’s Presidential Spokesperson Ambassador İbrahim Kalın confirmed this situation.
Commenting on the meeting between President Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Kalin said that discussions will include the still incomplete “normalization” process launched in June 2015. Russia removed sanctions on some products, particularly on citrus fruits, but the majority of sanctions remains in place.
Ankara also wants Moscow to grant a discount in the price of natural gas imported by Turkey, to waive visas for business leaders and tourists, and increase the number of work permits for Turkish nationals in Russia.
There were about 40,000 Turkish citizens in Russia before the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 shoot-down by the Turkish Air Force in Syria. Now there are some 13,000 Turkish citizens in Russia according to Kalin. The number reduced due to the visa and other subsequent restrictions.
For its part, Turkey offers Russia a cooperation agreement in the field of mining and the energy sector: the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and Turkish Stream projects.
The Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline project agreement between Turkey and Russia was signed in October 2016 and ratified by Putin on February 7, 2017. The discount in the price of natural gas imported by Turkey is directly linked with the progress of the project. Ankara will also benefit from gas transit to the EU.
Russia and Turkey signed the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant deal in May 2010. According to the deal, Akkuyu NGS Elektrik Uretim Corp, a subsidiary of the Russian state corporation Rosatom would build, own, and operate a power plant at Akkuyu comprising four 1,200 MW VVER units.
The construction of the first unit was set to begin in 2016. However, the limited authorization for the construction of Akkuyu NPP is expected only this summer, with the license to follow next year.
“It takes more than a year to review documents and therefore the main construction license is expected to be granted in 2018. At the same time, submission of documents makes possible for the Turkish party to issue a limited construction authorization already by summer 2017. Receipt of the limited authorization will enable starting construction of the so-called ‘non-nuclear’ part of the plant, for example, the turbine island, along with auxiliary buildings and structures. We expect Turkish partners will review documents as soon as practicable,” Chief Executive Officer of Rosatom Anastasia Zoteeva commented on the issue on March, 2017.
At the same time some experts consider Russia’s participation in this project as a big mistake, since they consider it unprofitable.
Ankara also proposes Moscow to conduct trade in local currencies. Economy Minister Zeybekci told reporters on March 9 that Turkish and Russian officials have discussed the issue and that a currency swap agreement was close to being completed. According to Zeybekci, the sides could sign the agreement during the visit to Russia. This proposal seems to be more political in nature, since at the current level of trade it would not yield significant financial benefits.
Turkey also offered to Russia the possibility of allowing its nationals to travel to Turkey without passports and only with their identity cards (internal Russian passports). Prime Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced the idea on March 9. In turn, he hopes Moscow would lift trade sanctions on agricultural exports from Turkey to Russia, as well as ease visa procedures for Turkish business people and truck drivers.
However, the mutual opening of borders or even easing visa restrictions now hardly is in the interests of Moscow because of high risk of terrorism and civil standoff in Turkey.