Russia is opposed to the UN Security Council invoking measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter allowing a military operation against Syria, but is now seeking to address its potential concerns over a new administration in the event that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad leaves office.
Moscow has had to review its position and policy vis-à-vis the Syrian situation in the aftermath of the suicide bombing in Damascus in which high-level officials were killed. In a one-day official visit to Moscow on July 18, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that he made proposals to Putin regarding the post-Assad era in Syria.
Subsequent to Erdoğan’s visit, US President Barack Obama called Putin, with both leaders agreeing that the situation in Syria is worsening.
According to Kremlin Press Advisor Dmitry Peskov, both Putin and Obama hold similar views, but diverge on the subject of the best way to address the crisis. Since the clashes between government and opposition forces began in March 2011, Moscow has repeatedly stated that it will not support military intervention, rather favoring the peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan and the road map adopted in accordance with the Geneva decisions. Russia is concerned that it will no longer remain influential in the region if the Assad regime is toppled, with its only military base outside the former Soviet states located in the Syrian port of Tartous. Moscow may also have concerns that if there is a regime change in Syria, Iran may be next.
Reports indicate that Russia may indirectly support sanctions against Syria in the event of extension of the mandate of the UN observers, which expired on July 21, provided military intervention is ruled out.
Russia sees an economic dimension to the developments in Syria, viewing Western states as a possible new source of revenue in the midst of a bleak economic situation as a result of the ongoing financial crisis. It is significant that unlike in Libya, Russia has taken a firm line on the Syrian uprising. Putin, who argued that the intervention in Libya was a crusade and that Moscow was deceived by the international community into supporting it, is now president. There is no strong opposition to this view in Russia; and the country is not approaching elections, which could cloud the response to a major conflict like Syria. Russia is also in a strong economic position.
Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow shows that Turkey and Russia, two nations that hold different views on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kosovo and Cyprus, also have clashing views on Syria. Moscow, however, is careful to protect bilateral relations with the potential to evolve into a strategic partnership from ongoing international and regional problems. During the press conference and official meetings of Erdoğan’s visit, Putin made only one statement on Syria: “We are pleased to see that Turkey is supporting the Geneva action plan.”
Erdoğan stated they Turkey wants stability in Syria and is opposed to the division of the country; it wants to see a Syria where the will of the people reigns. The Turkish prime minister holds that the international community cannot remain indifferent to the growing death toll the plight of Syrians who have been forced to leave their homes.
In his speech, Putin emphasized that the volume of bilateral trade between Russia and Turkey has grown by 20 percent, exceeding $34 billion. He stated that Russia will construct a nuclear plant in Akkuyu, and praised the efficiency of the High Level Cooperation Council set up between the two countries. Putin further noted that 3.5 million Russian tourists had traveled to Turkey in 2011, thanks to the quality of service experienced in the nation and the removal of visa requirements.
Both leaders agreed that they should continue working to achieve their goal of $100 billion in bilateral trade. Significant steps have been taken to improve mutual investments. To this end, during his visit to Moscow, Erdoğan’s met with the CEO of Sberbank, which has purchased Denizbank German Gref. Russia and Turkey will also cooperate on the Göktürk satellite project, due for completion by late 2013. A Third High Level Cooperation Council was also scheduled, which Russian President Putin and members of his cabinet will travel to Turkey on Oct. 15 to attend.
Russian experts also caution that improved bilateral relations should not suffer due to the Syrian crisis. In his column “Syria should not become a problem in Turkish-Russian relations,” political analyst Dmitri Kosirev of Russian news agency Ria Novosti wrote: “Who is the best candidate for partnership in this region? Which regime is closer to Russia in the Muslim Greater Middle East? Iran or Syria? Apparently, there is no better candidate than Turkey.”
Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Fyodr Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that Syria holds different meanings for Turkey and Russia, and that the situation in Syria is far more important to Turkey as it shares a border with Syria, while Russia views the matter from an international perspective. Lukyanov, commenting that Erdoğan will not be able to change Russia’s mind on the Syrian issue, stated: “I think the parties made their stance clear in the meetings. Yes, we hold different views. However, Russian-Turkish relations will not be affected by these diverse views. When the crisis is resolved, Syria will no longer have any special place in relations between Turkey and Russia because the latter has pretty substantial priorities and agendas with Turkey. Both countries consider the importance of the bilateral relations. In the long term, Syria will not affect Turkish-Russian relations.”