A Kremlin spokesman said Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin is finalizing plans to visit Turkey in October, a nation with whom relations have been tense following repeated violations of Turkish airspace that resulted in the downing of a Russian jet over Turkey.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin was, indeed, planning a visit to Turkey. He did not provide a date or occasion, instead promising, “Once all preparatory work has been finalised, we will issue a relevant statement.” The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet suggested sometime between October 9 and 13, as Istanbul is scheduled to host the World Energy Congress, and the Russian jet incident significantly damaged multiple energy trade deals between the two countries.
The tensions between Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stem largely from the role either country is playing in the Syrian civil war. Erdogan has long been a staunch opponent of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who enjoys vast support from Moscow. The Russian jets that repeatedly violated Turkish airspace in November were in the region allegedly targeting Islamic State outposts on Assad’s behalf, though most Russian airstrikes have fallen not on ISIS-controlled territory but, over anti-Assad rebel-held territories, such as the province of Aleppo.
After repeated violations, Erdogan gave the order to shoot down a Russian fighter jet in November. An infuriated Putin accused Erdogan of lying when Turkish officials claimed they did not know the jet was Russian and were merely protecting their territory, and even accused the United States of helping orchestrate the attack. Putin imposed numerous economic sanctions on Turkey and cooperative economy projects were halted.
Slowly but surely, both sides have worked to repair ties. Putin reached out to Erdogan in July followed a failed coup attempt that Erdogan has blamed on his Islamist nemesis, the cleric Fethullah Gulen. “We thank the Russian authorities, particularly President Putin. We have received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said of the call.
The language between both nations began to soften, with “friends” and “partners” returning to the diplomatic vocabulary. Putin and Erdogan agreed to meet in person in June, triggered in part by the deadly jihadist attack on Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. By August, when Erdogan made the decision to directly involve Turkish troops in the Syrian civil war, Russian officials were touting the possibility of Russian troops sharing space with their American counterparts at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase. “It is not guaranteed that Russia needs to use Incirlik, but such a decision can be regarded as Turkey’s real readiness to cooperate with Russia in the fight against terrorism in Syria, and not just pay lip service,” Russian legislator Igor Morozov said in late August.
Putin, meanwhile, suggested that Turkey had forewarned Russian operators in Syria that they would return to the fray. “Turkey’s operation in Syria was not something unexpected for us. Foreign Affairs and Intelligence exist so that we face fewer unexpected developments. We understood what was going on and where things would lead,” he said.
Turkish outlets have also reported that, in an attempt to prevent another incident like the November jet attack, the two countries have reached a “gentleman’s agreement” on where each air force can fly.
Much remains to be resolved in Syria between Russia and Turkey, however. For one, Russia has not budged in its support for Assad, whom Erdogan has referred to as a “terrorist” (Assad has referred to Erdogan as a Muslim Brotherhood “extremist“). Syrian officials have denied cooperation between Turkey and Russia to Russian propaganda outlets. But Erdogan himself has changed his disposition towards Assad, even accepting in August that he can see a situation in which Assad, the Syrian head of state, participates in Syrian civil war peace talks.
A major factor potentially persuading Erdogan to reluctantly accept Assad is the growing relations between the United States and the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG and YPJ), the Syrian Kurdish militias known as the most effective force on the ground against the Islamic State in Syria. Assad vehemently opposes any support to the Kurdish militias, arguing that they are seeking to carve an independent Kurdistan out of
Assad vehemently opposes any support to the Kurdish militias, arguing that they are seeking to carve an independent Kurdistan out of joint Syrian-Turkish territory. As Russia and Assad focus on killing civilians in rebel-held territories, however, the YPG remains the most reliable group on the ground with which the United States can coordinate airstrikes and joint attacks. Reports indicate President Barack Obama may even directly fund the YPG.
Erdogan’s government makes no distinction between the YPG and the Kurdistan Peoples’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group. Erdogan himself has threatened to walk away from U.S. cooperation if the YPG becomes involved in the fight against ISIS more directly.
“We cannot say anything at the moment since we have not clearly seen the attitude of the U.S,” Erdogan warned, “But Turkey will not be part of an operation if the U.S. wants to conduct it with the PYD and YPG. But if they do not, we can carry out this struggle along with the U.S.”