Putin and Erdoğan make show of partnership, but contention lurks

Russian President Vladimir Putin is holding the latest of many meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the opening of a pipeline in Istanbul on Wednesday, but the show of partnership belies serious points of contention between the two leaders, Deutsche Welle said.

Putin and Erdoğan will talk less about natural gas – the TurkStream pipeline will carry Russian gas to Europe, enhancing Turkey’s role as an energy hub – and more about issues that divide the two governments - namely, who controls Libya, the fighting in Syria’s Idlib province and Erdogan’s plans to circumvent the Bosporus Straits, and potentially the Montreux Agreement, with a new canal through Istanbul, Deutsche Welle said in an editorial on Tuesday.

Perhaps topping the agenda is Libya – Turkey has deployed troops to support the U.N.-approved government in Tripoli against an assault by the Moscow-backed Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar.

Russia has told Ankara that Turkish soldiers should not oppose Haftar’s militias, Deutsche Welle said citing one unidentified official. Erdoğan will assure Putin at Wednesday’s meeting that Turkish soldiers will not enter combat, other officials say.

The two leaders will also talk about Idlib, where a Syrian-Russian assault against Turkey-backed Islamist militants is prompting hundreds of thousands of people to flee to the Turkish border, threatening to swell the millions of Syrian refugees that Turkey already hosts. Erdoğan has faced significant domestic political pressure to send the Syrians home. Russia and Turkey had previously agreed to de-escalate tensions in Idlib.

The proposed 45-km-long Istanbul Canal is a third point of contention, Deutsche Welle said. The artificial waterway, stretching from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, casts doubt on the Montreux Agreement, which carefully regulates the passage of naval vessels. Russia is deeply concerned about how the canal will impact the agreement, Deutsche Welle said.

Putin has sent a clear signal to Erdoğan that military ships should not be allowed to use the new transit route, Turkish diplomats said. Turkey needs to formulate a “new way to prevent security problems in the region”, they said, according to the German state-owned broadcaster.

Talks with government insiders from both countries show that, despite the semblance of harmony shown by Putin and Erdoğan in Istanbul, in several instances the two leaders’ positions could not be further apart, Deutsche Welle reported.