Russia & Turkey Remain Apart on Syria

By: Semih Idiz for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse Posted on April 19.

Russia has once again poured cold water on Turkey’s expectations for a resolution of the Syrian crisis that does not include President Bashar al-Assad and that sees the Syrian opposition emerging victorious with outside support. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly spelled out Moscow’s position this week in Turkey, using language indicating that the two sides remain at serious loggerheads over this crisis.

Arriving in Istanbul on Tuesday, April 16, for a meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group involving the two countries, Lavrov did not mince words after official talks with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. During their joint press conference, Lavrov said all the key players that had signed the Geneva Agreement had agreed on the need for a dialogue in Syria between the government and the opposition.

The June 2012 Geneva Agreement, which was produced with the participation of foreign ministers from the permanent members of the UN Security Council and several other countries, proposed a transitional government in Damascus comprised of officials from the regime and the opposition. Loathe as it may be to seeing Assad or remnants of his regime in any talks on the new Syria, Ankara nevertheless reluctantly accepted the agreement for political reasons.

Today, however, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to work overtly and covertly to topple the Assad regime. It is also a strong supporter and sponsor of the Friends of Syria group, which aims to topple Assad as well. The group includes the United States and various European and Arab countries and is opposed by Moscow, as might be expected. It held its last major meeting in Rome in February, albeit with no game-changing results to speak of.

The Davutoglu-Lavrov talks in Istanbul came just days before core members of the group were due to meet in the same city on April 20. Answering a question about that meeting during the press conference, Lavrov criticized the Friends of Syria, clearly annoying his Turkish hosts, who are expecting the weekend gathering to produce concrete results.

Lavrov said the group was undermining any potential dialogue with the Assad regime to end the violence as soon as possible on the basis of the Geneva Agreement. Moscow has been accusing the Friends of Syria of prolonging the violence by supporting the armed opposition. “It is not realistic when one party in a conflict is isolated in any mechanism established to deal with that conflict, and we miss the ground for dialogue,” Lavrov said with Davutoglu standing by him.

Turkish officials reject such claims and have turned the tables on Moscow by noting that it is supplying the Assad regime with the weapons that are not only prolonging the crisis, but enabling government forces to target civilians and perpetrate atrocities. Given the sentiments on both sides, Moscow will clearly be following this weekend’s meeting of the Friends of Syria with some concern. Ankara wants the meeting to generate results that will break the deadlock on the ground in Syria and also alleviate Turkey’s growing refugee problem. But few analysts expect groundbreaking progress because Syria’s “friends” are also divided among themselves, which provides some comfort for the Russians.

Turkey, Britain and France want arms to be supplied to the Syrian opposition, a call that the US administration of Barack Obama continues to oppose despite similar calls from the US State Department, the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency. Washington has only authorized “non-lethal assistance” to Syria to date and, in fact, is seeking what it says is a “political solution,” which carries overtones of the Russian position.

In an interview with CNNTurk, Davutoglu said this week that Ankara expected the international community to establish humanitarian corridors for Syrian refugees and to undertake war crimes investigations against the Syrian regime. He also said, somewhat curiously, “No country has criticized Turkey’s position, except Syria.”

While this last contention is belied by the criticism leveled at Turkey’s Syrian policy by Russia and Iran, Moscow is also known to be opposed to anything that would entail involvement by Western military forces in Syria. A buffer zone or “humanitarian corridors,” like the ones being sought by Turkey, would require such a presence for the protection of refugees.

During the press conference, Lavrov said some countries were calling on arms to be supplied to the Syrian opposition and indicated that this was not only against international law, but would also benefit radical Islamists fighting in Syria, including al-Qaeda. He also contended there are some who want the fighting in Syria to continue until victory is secured, characterizing this as “unrealistic.”

Lavrov went on to underscore Russian opposition to any initiative aimed at changing the administration in Syria and said the only priority must be to stop the violence as soon as possible. “The precondition for all of us should be to call on all the sides in the conflict to unconditionally give up their arms. If the departure of Assad and the administration is made a priority, this kind of a geopolitical approach will come at the cost of innocent lives,” Lavrov said.

These remarks undoubtedly grated on the nerves of Erdogan and Davutoglu since Assad’s remaining in power in anyway would be considered a political embarrassment for them at this stage. In a reminder of its position in Bosnia, Russia also remains opposed to any war crimes probe that is one-sided, excluding possible crimes perpetrated by elements of the Syrian armed opposition.

Turkey is currently in close contact with some of these elements, including the radical Islamist al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra. Looking at the overall picture, it is clear that Ankara and Moscow have been unable to convince each other over Syria. Both sides claim to speak on behalf of suffering Syrians, but place the blame for their suffering on each other’s policies.

In the background of all this, UN officials indicate that Syrians face a growing “humanitarian catastrophe,” which thus far has left up to 70,000 dead and made refugees of 1.3 million people who are flooding into surrounding countries, including Turkey. Such startling numbers, however, have not helped break the deadlock in the Security Council. Turkey and Russia’s different approaches to Syria are merely an extension of the deadlock at the Security Council. Ankara and Moscow are nevertheless making sure that the deadlock does nothing to undermine growing bilateral interests between the two countries — hence the third meeting of the Joint Strategic Planning Group, with the fourth planned for St. Petersburg. In the end, they are “begging to differ” on Syria, annoying each other by dampening the other’s expectations, but nevertheless making sure it is business as usual in Turkish-Russian relations.

Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News and can also be read in Taraf.

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