Turkey and Russia commit to deep strategic ties despite Syria tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on Wednesday. (Photo: AP)

July 18, 2012, Wednesday/ 17:10:00

Turkish and Russian leaders remained committed to maintaining their economic and strategic ties despite unresolved disagreements over how the Syrian crisis should be resolved.

Speaking after a two-and-a-half-hour meeting in Moscow, both Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin praised expanding trade volume and the Turkish-Russian cooperation in the field of energy, with Putin saying that the two countries may well bring their trade volume up to $100 billion, from the current $32 billion.

The critical meeting came as the crisis in Syria escalated rapidly when a suicide bomber struck the National Security building in Damascus, killing Syria's defense minister and President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law.

The Turkish president and parliament speaker both called for an immediate regime change earlier in the day, signaling that Ankara's calls for Assad's departure are likely to intensify following the Damascus attack, the harshest blow to the Syrian regime since the 17-month-old uprising began.

Turkey, once a close ally of Assad, has become the most outspoken critic of the Syrian president in protest of his brutal crackdown on the anti-regime uprising. Ankara's calls for Assad's departure pit it against Moscow, a staunch supporter of Assad.

Erdoğan and Putin, however, sidestepped the issue as they spoke to the press about their talks at a joint news conference. The two leaders touched upon Syria when asked by journalists and their brief answers signaled that the meeting did not produce any significant progress in overcoming the disagreements.

Erdoğan blamed Assad's “autocratic regime” for 18,000 deaths since the uprising began 17 months ago and said all Turkey wanted for Syria was peace. He also said Turkey was for the protection of Syria's unity and emphasized that the course of change in the country should be drawn by the people of Syria, not foreign countries.

Putin, for his part, welcomed Erdoğan's statement supporting the conclusions of an international conference on Syria in Geneva last month, which convened to discuss a UN plan for political transition in Syria.

No exchange of documents on jet incident

Erdoğan also revealed that Russia has not offered any documents that might shed light on the circumstances surrounding the crash of a Turkish plane off the Syrian coast on June 22. “No document has been shared,” he said, adding that the exchange of information between the two countries was limited to a phone call he and Putin had soon after the incident.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier this week that his country has delivered information it has regarding the jet incident.

Hours after Erdoğan's talks with Assad, the UN Security Council was due to hold a vote on Wednesday afternoon on a new resolution that would impose sanctions on Syria's government. The key stumbling block to an agreement on a Syria plan at the UN Security Council is the Western demand for a resolution threatening non-military sanctions and tied to Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict in Syria. Russia is adamantly opposed to any mention of sanctions or Chapter 7, fearing a repeat of the NATO campaign in Libya. Moscow opposes any prospect of international intervention in Syria.

Commenting on the Damascus attack, Lavrov accused the West of inciting the Syrian opposition and reiterated opposition to any UN resolution under Chapter 7. "Instead of calming the opposition down, some of our partners are inciting it to go on," Lavrov was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday.  A Western-backed resolution that would impose sanctions and allows for possible military intervention "would amount to direct support of the revolutionary movement," Lavrov also said.

Speaking before their meeting, Erdoğan did not mention Syria and underscored instead the bilateral ties. He said military, economic, political and cultural aspects of Turkish-Russian ties would be reviewed during his meeting with Putin. Noting that bilateral trade volume has increased to $35 billion in recent years, particularly thanks to investments in the energy sector, Erdoğan also lauded planned Turkish-Russian cooperation in nuclear energy as the “most significant investment in the region of recent times.”

Turkey and Russia signed a $20 billion deal for the construction by Russia of a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast.

Turkey has also approved Russia's plans to allow the almost $20 billion South Stream pipeline, which aims to supply Southern Europe with 63 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year, to pass under its territorial waters.

In a statement released ahead of Erdoğan's visit, Putin's office also put the emphasis on bilateral economic ties, rather than Syria. The Kremlin noted that Turkey purchased 26 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia in 2011 and added that there was no obstacle to increase the volume of trade up to $100 billion in the near future.

Underlining the economic focus of the talks, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yıldız also attended the two-and-a-half-hour meeting between Erdoğan and Putin. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was also present.

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