In second official visit, what does Turkey want from Russia?

Turkey and Russia back different sides in the war in Syria. But amid strained relations with the US, Turkey may be trying to signal that it has diplomatic options.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shake hands during a news conference after their talks in the Konstantin palace outside St. Petersburg, Russia, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016. Erdoğan said the two nations can rebuild their damaged ties and promised to back major energy projects with Russia.

Turkish officials will visit Russia to discuss possible resolutions to the conflict in Syria, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The trip marks the first official visit since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber over Syria in November, souring relations. The two countries back opposing sides in the conflict, with Turkey joining the West in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down as a non-negotiable condition for peace, while Russia has helped turn the tide of the war in favor of Mr. Assad’s government with airstrikes on opposition-held neighborhoods.

"We especially don't want attacks that harm civilians," Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state media, reported the Associated Press. "We don't believe it is appropriate that the moderate opposition is attacked. We don't find the Aleppo siege to be appropriate."

But Mr. Cavusoglu said the Turkish delegation headed to Russia on Wednesday, which includes members of the foreign ministry as well as military and intelligence agencies, would seek common ground with Russian officials.

"On Syria, we think the same on the issue of a cease-fire, on humanitarian aid and a political solution," Mr. Cavusoglu. "We may have a different outlook on how the cease-fire should be implemented."

Turkey's ties with the United States have grown strained since a faction of the military tried to unseat Mr. Erdoğan in a mid-July coup, which failed. Erdoğan demands that the US extradite the man he believes to be behind the uprising, the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Mr. Gülen denies involvement. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that so far, US officials have not been persuaded by the evidence provided by the Turkish government.

On Tuesday, Turkish justice minister Bekir Bozdag told state media that if the US did not extradite Gülen, ties between the two countries would suffer, reported Voice of America.

"If the US does not deliver [Gülen], they will sacrifice relations with Turkey for the sake of a terrorist," he said.

He also warned of "serious anti-American feeling in Turkey," reported Reuters. "It is in the hands of the United States to stop this anti-American feeling leading to hatred," he said.

On Tuesday, The Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir reported:

Some experts suggest the St. Petersburg meeting is mostly theater, enabling both Putin and Erdoğan to signal to the West that they have alternatives, without actually committing themselves to much.

"Really, when you look at the damage that's been done to Russo-Turkish economic relations in the past few months, it will take a long time just to restore things to their previous level," says Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

Cavusoglu was careful not to pose the increased diplomatic focus on Russia as a challenge to the West. "We have always regarded our relations with Russia as complementary, not as an alternative," the foreign minister said.

"We are not improving ties with Russia to send a message to the West. We are doing it for our own interests and for the interests of the region."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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