Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shared a stage with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Istanbul on Monday in a display of improved relations not 11 months after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the border with Syria, triggering months of hostility between the two states that both leaders appeared intent on trying to put behind them.
In his first visit to Turkey since the shoot-down, Putin spoke at the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, addressing a vast, darkened auditorium full of dignitaries. The Russian President offered a mostly dry speech on the state of world oil prices, pipelines and “boosting energy transport capacity.” He did not mention the immediate crisis in neighboring Syria, where Russia supports the embattled government of President Bashar Assad while Turkey supports rebels fighting him.
Climbing the stage immediately afterward, Erdogan moved from energy to the war. Standing in front of a glittering, floor-to-ceiling video screen, he raised the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where Russian and regime forces are engaged in an escalating campaign against the rebel-held section of the city.
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“Today in Aleppo when kids look out on the horizon, they see helicopters and warplanes that bomb them,” Erdogan said, referring to the embattled city where Russian and regime forces are bombing residential neighborhoods held by rebels. Putin sat perhaps 10 feet away but showed no discomfort. Moments later, the two Presidents stood shoulder to shoulder alongside more than a dozen other leaders for what the M.C. described as a “family photo.” Later the same day, the pair signed a long-anticipated agreement to build a 560-mile natural gas pipeline linking Turkey and Russia across the Black Sea.
The day illustrated the strange state of Russian-Turkish relations. Putin and Erdogan have set aside last year’s crisis that for a moment placed a NATO member on the brink of confrontation with Russia. But with the two states aligned on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, the current rapprochement has limits. Russia and Turkey are arguably the two countries most closely involved with the main warring parties in Syria, with Russia directly fighting alongside the Assad regime, and Turkey cooperating with various rebel groups, who receive supplies across Turkey's 511-mile border with Syria.
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What's more, the Istanbul summit comes at a moment of spiraling crisis in Syria, where Russia supports an Assad regime offensive against areas held by rebel groups, triggering some of the worst destruction in more than five years of upheaval and war. The Russian-backed bombing operation killed more than 300 civilians in one week in late September, and Russian warplanes have been blamed for attacks on hospitals, apartment blocks and a U.N.-organized aid convoy.
Relations have been frosted since a Russian Su-24 jet that Turkey said violated its airspace was downed on Nov. 24, 2015. The pilot was killed and Russia retaliated by imposing economic sanctions, undermining trade and striking a devastating blow to Turkey’s tourist economy, which relied heavily on Russian visitors. At the time, Putin called the downing “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists.” That crisis appeared to come to an end in June when the Kremlin announced that Erdogan had written a letter apologizing for shooting down the plane. Putin and Erdogan met for the first time since the crisis in St. Petersburg in August, in a meeting billed as a “clear the air” summit. Putin moved to restore relations even further with his visit to Turkey on Monday, his first since the Russian plane was shot down.
“This should not be read as a strategic realignment on the side of Turkey. It is much more an effort to eliminate the acrimonious state of the relationship following the plane incident,” says Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “Now the relationship stands on more firm ground, but again, both history but also the reality of Turkey’s relationship with Russia has amply demonstrated that there can be no real strategic realignment in Ankara and Moscow."
Limiting the thaw is Ankara's deepening involvement in the increasingly complex Syrian war. Turkey directly intervened in the war only in August, sending tanks and fighter jets to aid rebels battling to retake territory held by the extremist group ISIS. The incursion also appeared designed to deter Kurdish militias with ties to Kurdish insurgents operating inside Turkey’s borders.
The invasion also signaled a shift in Turkey’s priorities in Syria. Whereas in past years Turkey had placed the fight against Assad at the top of the agenda, it actually moved to roll back both ISIS and Kurdish militants whom Erdogan calls a dual threat to Turkish security. Both the jihadist group and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party have been blamed for a series of lethal bombings in Turkey over the past 15 months. In fact, since July, Turkish officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have even hinted at the idea of normalizing ties with the Syrian government in Damascus. But so far there is no sign of that normalization becoming a reality, and Ulgen doubted it could.
“I don’t think there’s any genuine possibility for Turkey to become friends with Assad," he says, "because the AKP foreign policy has so much invested in ousting Assad that such a total digression cannot be explained to Turkish public opinion."
Following their joint appearance earlier in the day, Putin and Erdogan discussed Syria in a separate, bilateral meeting. In the nighttime news conference that followed, the two men offered another show of unity, but they were short on specifics. Putin, finally addressing Syria directly, said, “Russia and Turkey support stopping the bloodshed.”