Stranded tomatoes the first casualty of Turkish-Russian tensions - analysis

Tensions between Turkey and Moscow over the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib have sparked a new tomato war between two countries, analyst Gönül Tol wrote in a commentary for the Middle East Institute.

Turkish trucks carrying $10-million worth of tomatoes are stranded at the Russian border, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatens to launch an intervention in Idlib, accusing Russia of not sticking to a 2018 deal between two countries. 

After Turkey downed a Russian jet in 2015, Moscow imposed a ban on Turkish agricultural products and advised Russian tourists against visiting Turkey, causing considerable damage to the Turkish economy. 

The two countries started mending ties in 2016 and Russia lifted restrictions on Turkish imports. But “the tomato ban remained in effect, reminding Turks that not all was forgiven and forgotten,” Tol said. 

“Eventually, Russia lifted the ban on tomatoes too, but as tensions between Moscow and Ankara have escalated in the last few weeks over Syria, the tomato war has once again flared up,” she said. 

Turkey, which hosts some 3.6 million Syrians, faces a new massive refugee wave as some 700,000 people have already fled the military assault of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday vowed to strike Syrian forces, after 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in a week by Syrian shelling in Idlib and talks between Turkish and Russian officials failed to bring a ceasefire. 

Erdoğan wants Russia to press Syrian forces to retreat from positions beyond Turkey’s 12 observation posts in Idlib built to protect a demilitarised zone established under the 2018 deal.

“Russia is sure to come to the regime’s aid in the event of a Turkish offensive, raising the stakes for Ankara even further,” Tol said. “If Turkey crosses the line, Russia has a lot of cards it can play - and tomatoes are just the beginning.”

“Erdoğan is in an unenviable position,” Tol said. “In the meantime, Turkish soldiers in Idlib are ever more vulnerable to regime attacks, hundreds of thousands of people are camped out on Turkey’s border in sub-zero conditions, and tomato producers in Antalya are pushing for this all to be over, fast.”