Top Russian General in Turkey for First Military Talks Since Jet Downing

Turkey's Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, right, and his Russian counterpart Gen. Valery Gerasimov pose for a photograph before their talks in Ankara, Turkey, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. Turkey's state-run news agency says the Russian and Turkish chiefs of general staff met Thursday afternoon at the Turkish military headquarters …
Turkish Military, Pool photo via AP

Hurriyet Daily News describes Thursday’s meeting between Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar as “a visit which signaled a new term of cooperation between the two countries, as they worked to mend strained ties gradually.”

Those ties were strained by Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border last year. Turkey and Russia have been mending that breach over the past few months.

“Political and economic tensions between the two countries recently softened with a lifting of sanctions and increased dialogue toward ending the Syrian civil war,” Hurriyet writes, adding that military cooperation in Syria was expected to be a major topic of discussion between the two generals.

The Times of Israel likewise sees Gerasimov’s visit to Ankara as a “significant symbol of healing ties between the two countries,” describing the meeting as the “highest-level military contact” between Russia and Turkey since their crisis in relations. Reuters says it is the first meeting of its kind in 11 years.

“Their talks came as a fragile truce in Syria implemented earlier this week appeared to be holding, despite growing frustration over aid deliveries being held up at the Turkish border,” TOI observes.

“The unity of understanding between the military wings of Turkey and Russia has been strengthened with this visit and has paved the way for further positive developments in the coming period,” a source in the Turkish military told Reuters.

Although Turkey and Russia have been on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, with Turkey insisting on the removal of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the meeting between Gerasimov and Akar might be a sign that Turkey is coming to accept Russia’s position on Assad’s survival. The Syria cease-fire arrangement between Russia and the U.S. is portrayed by many media sources as a factor in Turkey’s thinking.

“Turkey launched its first major military incursion into Syria three weeks ago to try to push back Islamic State militants from its border and prevent Kurdish militia fighters from gaining ground in their wake,” Reuters points out. “Ankara now faces a difficult diplomatic balancing act if it is to win international support for the more permanent ‘safe zone’ cleared of militants it wants on its border. Russia has in the past said any such incursion would be illegal.”

That sounds like a subject for negotiations, and perhaps a consolation prize for Turkey, if Assad’s ouster is off the table.