In their third meeting in a month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Ankara. The talks primarily focused on Syria, but Putin’s visit coincides with U.S.-Turkish relations, reeling from a crisis sparked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Regarding Jerusalem, I have observed that we share common opinions with Mr. Putin, and we’ve come to an agreement that we will sustain our decisiveness in this matter,” Erdogan said in a joint press statement with Putin, referring to the Russian president as his “dear friend.”
“The resolution by the U.S. to move the American embassy to Jerusalem is far from helping the settlement of the situation in the Middle East,” Putin said. “It is destabilizing the already complicated situation in the region, which is difficult as it is today.”
In a move that will add to Washington’s unease over Ankara’s warming relationship with Moscow, the Turkish president announced that a controversial purchase of a Russian missile system should be finalized this week. NATO strongly opposes the sale, claiming it is incompatible with its systems.
Putin’s visit is just the latest move in what some analysts call a careful and well-played strategy by Russia of building influence and sowing discord amongst its rivals. Before meeting Erdogan, Putin met with another U.S. ally, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in Cairo. Prior to the meeting with Putin, Erdogan ratcheted up his rhetoric over Trump’s Jerusalem move.
“With their decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the United States has become a partner in the bloodshed,” Erdogan said.
Throughout the year, Turkish-Russian relations have blossomed as U.S.-Turkish ties have plummeted. The latest meeting between Putin and Erdogan is the eighth this year. The two leaders are increasingly cooperating over Syria. Monday’s talks focused on the planned Syrian National Congress on National Dialogue, an event Moscow hopes will bring together the Syrian government and the opposition. Putin said the Congress would address the adoption of a constitution, the parameters of a future Syrian statehood, and the organization of elections under the control of the United Nations.
Even though Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, analysts say that with the war approaching an endgame, both sides have something to gain in cooperation.
Putin has successfully exploited Ankara’s anger and mistrust over Washington’s backing of the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia in its war against the Islamic State. Ankara calls the YPG terrorists, claiming they are linked to a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
But Moscow, too, has been backing the YPG and its political wing, the PYD. Putin is pressing for the YPG to be included in meetings to end the cvil war, which Ankara bitterly opposes. Last week, images appeared of Russian and YPG forces openly collaborating in a military operation against the Islamic State.
“We’ve seen Ankara critical of the photo of Russian military representatives and the YPG,” said analyst Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. “But this cannot be compared to the policy of the U.S., which is providing heavy weapons to the YPG.”
Turkish-Russian relations could be further boosted by Putin’s announcement of the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria.
“Ankara would look at this as an opportunity to expand its influence across the border,” said Ulgen.
Turkish forces remain massed on the border of the YPG-controlled Syrian Afrin enclave.
“As things stand, Afrin remains under Russian protection. But if indeed Russia were to pull back its troops, this would certainly give more room to Turkey to contemplate military action against Afrin,” Ulgen predicted.
Putin may be wary of abandoning the Syrian Kurdish militia, which Moscow has been developing ties with over several years. Analysts point out that the powerful militia could be useful in helping protect Moscow’s interests in the region from other potential regional rivals, including Turkey and Iran, especially as it winds down much of its military presence in Syria. But such a move would likely test Moscow’s currently successful balancing act —managing its conflicting policies in Syria.