The Sultan and the Tsar: Erdogan Travels to Russia

So the Sultan travels to see the Tsar at the royal seat of St Petersburg. And the Caliph of Damascus will watch from Syria with the conviction that Ba’ath Party policy has once again proved its worth. The policy? Wait. And wait. And wait.

For just as Turkey’s power over Syria – its Pakistan-like role of conduit for Arab Gulf money and arms to the civil war, its smuggling routes to Isis, al-Qaeda (or Jabhat al-Nusra or Fatah el-Sham or whatever) – seemed an overwhelming threat to Damascus, along comes Turkey’s mysterious coup, its army neutered, and Sultan Erdogan scurrying off to St Petersburg to move his country from Nato to Mother Russia.

And all this when the rebel armies in Syria have resurrounded government troops in Aleppo with the aim of reopening their supply routes to Turkey.

For with Russian forces scarcely 30 miles south of the Turkish border, and its pilots daily bombing the very same rebels who are besieging Aleppo, Tsar Putin is not going to tolerate any more missiles smuggled across the Turkish border to shoot down his helicopters.

And if Nato and the EU believe they can rely on their faithful ally Sultan Erdogan to pursue the destruction of the Assad regime or curb refugee flows to Europe – or tolerate US jets flying out of Incirlik airbase and other former Armenian properties in Anatolia – they can think again.

You only have to read the Russian versions of the Sultan’s grovelling statements prior to his Ottoman visit to grasp how the sick man of Europe is breathing in the fresh air of the Steppes.

“This visit seems to me a new milestone in bilateral relations, beginning with a clean slate,” quoth the Sultan, “and I personally, with all my heart and on behalf of the Turkish nation, salute President Putin and all Russians.”

That was Russian television for you. Then take the Russian news agency Tass, through which the Sultan refers to his “friend Vladimir” and promises that “there is yet much for our countries to do together”.

Now let’s abandon the Tsar-Sultan stuff. This was more like the fraternal greetings a Brezhnev or a Podgorny might have expected from an erring member of the Warsaw Pact, full of “bilateral relations” and “salutes” and “friendship” (though not “eternal friendship”, as brotherly nations might once have pledged the Kremlin).

Here’s another line from the Tass version of Erdogan’s pre-St Petersburg declarations: “A solution to the Syrian crisis cannot be found without Russia. We can resolve the Syrian crisis only in cooperation with Russia.”

And in cooperation with Bashar al-Assad? It’s a thought that must warm the heart of Bashar who was once – let us remember this – close family friends with Erdogan and his wife. If you can shoot down a Russian plane and then embrace your “friend” Putin, why could Erdogan not do the same to Bashar all over again?

That’s also, of course, a question for Hillary Clinton and The Donald to ponder – although Donald Trump, who seems to hold the same views about the Tsar as the Sultan now boasts, could possibly live with that.

There is a long list of the potential losers in the theatre of St Petersburg. First, Isis and al-Qaeda-Nusra-Fatah el-Sham, and all the other Islamist outfits now fighting the regime in Syria, who suddenly find that their most reliable arms conduit has teamed up with their most ferocious enemy, the owner of the Russian air force. Then there’s the Saudi and Qatari billionaires who have been supplying the cash and guns for the Sunni warriors who are trying to overthrow both Damascus and Baghdad, and humble the Shia of Iran, Syria (the Alawites) and Lebanon.

And then, above all others perhaps, those who will fear for their lives in the aftermath of this fraternal jaunt to the Tsar’s palace: the Turkish army. For what is becoming ever clearer is that – and this is called the kicker to the story – Russia and, indeed, Iran played an intelligence role in warning Erdogan of the military coup plotted against him.

The Arabs have already been told by their Russian collocutors that Putin, being the old KGB boss that he was, personally sent a message to Erdogan after learning of the coup from Turkish army communications, which were picked up and listened to by Russian technicians at their air base just outside Latakia in Syria.


The Iranians – who would be happy to see Turkey turned against their Sunni Islamist enemies in Syria – also tipped off Erdogan about the coup, so the Arabs have been told.

Not long ago, it seems, it was Hillary who wanted to press the “reset” button with Putin. Now it’s Erdogan – with, one suspects, a lot more effect.

The word “terror” is now used with such promiscuity that it seems to have been invented in the United States. Actually, its first common usage after the French Revolution appears to have been in Moscow where it described the bomb-throwing “terrorists” who were trying to overthrow the Tsar.

So watch out for that word “terrorists” in the communiqués that follow the Sultan-Tsar Summit. The Grand St Petersburg Alliance Against Terror. Terror, terror, terror. If you hear that from Mother Russia in the coming hours, you’ll know that things are going to change in Syria.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.