Turkey, Russia agree to differ on Syria, cement ties

Turkey, Russia agree to differ on Syria, cement ties

Turkey and Russia aired their differences on Syria but decided to set them aside to protect their robust business and energy ties, Today's Zaman reported.

At a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in İstanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke at length about Turkish-Russian economic cooperation before praising the Russian policies on the Palestinian conflict.

He said the foreign ministers of the two countries -- who had separate talks earlier in the day on Syria -- will work together "more intensively" over Syria.

Putin said both Russia and Turkey share the same goals for the future of Syria but differ on methods on how to reach these goals.

"The positions of the Russian Federation and Turkey completely correspond regarding what has to be attained (in Syria), but as of yet no shared approach regarding methods of how to attain it has been reached," Putin said.

Russian president, one of Syria's few remaining allies, said he understood Turkish concerns about its border security after Syrian shells hit Turkish territory in recent months.

In an apparent reference to a Turkish request for deployment of NATO Patriot missiles, Putin said it was normal for any country to take measures in response to violations of its borders but warned that such a deployment could escalate fears of a wider conflict.

"We share Turkey's concern about the developments on the border," said Putin. "But we are calling for restraint because increasing (military) potential will not settle the situation but create the opposite effect."

Hailing blossoming economic ties, he said the two countries aim to increase their trade volume, which stood at $32 billion last year, to $100 billion in the next few years. Erdoğan said the two countries wanted to increase their trade volume to $35 billion by the end of 2012.

Asked if Russia could offer guarantees that Syria will not use chemical weapons, he said he cannot offer any such guarantee although he did not expect Syria to attack any of its neighbors with such weapons.

He also said Russia was not an "advocate of the Syrian regime" but did not want mistakes made in the past, similar to the one in Libya, which he said had led to the killing of the US ambassador there, to be repeated in Syria.

Despite differences over Syria, Turkey and Russia have enjoyed solid business and energy ties. Turkey is a top consumer of Russian natural gas, while Russia is a major market for Turkish construction companies. Russia is also building Turkey's first nuclear power plant in a $20 billion project and Turkey is a top travel destination for Russians, with more than 3.5 million Russian tourists visiting last year.

Putin, accompanied by Russian ministers and businessmen, visited Turkey for the third meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council. He met with Prime Minister Erdoğan for two-and-a-half hours before the council's meeting. The two countries signed 11 cooperation agreements following the talks.

The visit is Putin's first trip in two months, something which observers say is itself a sign of importance the Russian president attaches to ties with Turkey. The Russian president was originally scheduled to visit Turkey in October, but that trip was postponed just after Turkey forced a Damascus-bound plane that had taken off from Moscow to land on suspicion that it was carrying military equipment to Syria.

But it appears that the postponement was related more to Putin's health problems than to the row over the intercepted plane as Putin postponed several other foreign trips as well.

The unusual break in his travel schedule fed speculation that the 60-year-old Putin is suffering from serious back trouble or another illness. Some reports said he injured his back shortly before the summit in a widely publicized flight in a motorized hang glider, while Russian officials have attributed Putin's discomfort to a pulled muscle.

Russia and Turkey have been at loggerheads over Syria but both countries have acted carefully in order to keep their ties from being affected by the dispute.

Ankara is the main backer of the Syrian opposition seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, while Russia insists any regime change in Syria should be decided on by the Syrians. Moscow has blocked attempts at the UN Security Council to condemn the Assad regime and continued arms trade with Syria.

Turkey says Russia has a key role in international efforts to end the 20-month-old Syrian crisis and Prime Minister Erdoğan pressed Putin to revise his country's policy on Monday.

But speaking to reporters as the talks continued, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov revealed that the Russian side has no intention to consider a policy change, saying that Assad's departure will lead to worse consequences and urging Turkey to convince the Syrian opposition to sit down for talks with the government instead.

The number of Syrian refugees, now in the tens of thousands, will jump to the hundreds of thousands if Assad is overthrown, Peskov told Turkish reporters, according to the NTV private broadcaster.

Russia is also opposed to the planned deployment of NATO Patriot missiles near Turkey's border with Syria, but Russian officials have again treaded carefully to avoid direct criticism of Turkey. Peskov said Russia is opposed to such deployment and has conveyed its position to the Turkish side.

But Peskov also said disagreements between Russia and Turkey over Syria will not jeopardize their strong economic ties. "Our bilateral ties are quite diverse, with a broad agenda and a range of specific projects both for today and for the future," Peskov was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. "At the same time, there are many serious disagreements regarding international issues. They don't affect bilateral ties, but differences on regional issues are substantial."

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