Erdogan and Putin meet and make up, nine months after Turkey’s downing of Russian jet

“We lived through a very complicated moment in the relations between our states and we very much want, and I feel our Turkish friends want, to overcome the difficulties,” Mr Putin said after the two men's first meeting since the jet downing incident.

Russian president Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) as Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) looks on, before their meeting on August 9, 2016. Alexander Nemenov/AFP
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BEIRUT // When Turkey shot down a Russian military jet last November, president Vladimir Putin said Ankara had stabbed Moscow in the back and the Kremlin accused the Turkish government of having direct ties to ISIL.

But such hostility seemed to be in the past on Tuesday when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Mr Putin for the first time since the incident.

“We lived through a very complicated moment in the relations between our states and we very much want, and I feel our Turkish friends want, to overcome the difficulties,” Mr Putin said after the meeting.

“Turkey-Russia ties have entered into a very different and positive phase,” said Mr Erdogan. He called the meeting in the Russian city of St Petersburg a “milestone”.

Turkey vehemently defended shooting down the Sukhoi Su-24 at the time, saying the jet had flown into Turkish airspace, but the incident has been recast in recent weeks and months.

In June Mr Erdogan apologised for the action and on Tuesday suggested it was shot down while in Syrian, not Turkish, airspace.

“The culprits in what happened in Syrian territory have been detained and brought to justice already,” he said, referring to the pilots who shot down the jet.

The pilots involved were recently arrested as part of a government purge of the military and other instutitons following last month’s coup attempt. And the ordeal is now being portrayed by the Turkish government and its supporters as part of a plot to undermine Ankara’s relations with Russia.

But despite their very vocal commitment to patch up relations, the two countries remain firmly at odds over Syria.

Speaking just hours ahead of his meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Erdogan said Russia was an important player in establishing peace in Syria, but reiterated calls for the departure of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, an ally of the Kremlin.

“We don’t want Syria’s disintegration, but the departure of Bashar Assad who is guilty for the deaths of 600,000 people,” Mr Erdogan told Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. “Syria’s unity cannot be kept with Assad. And we cannot support a murderer who has committed acts of state terror.”

Russia intervened militarily in Syria late last year to back Mr Al Assad’s regime and has shown no sign of withdrawing support. Ankara, meanwhile, has been actively working to help the country’s rebels since early on in the conflict and continues to support them, despite recently saying it wanted to repair relations with Syria. So far, diplomatic efforts to solve the conflict have failed, largely because the Syrian government has refused to discuss the political future of Mr Al Assad, who the opposition demands leave power.

Moscow and Ankara also remain divided over Kurdish factions in the Middle East. Not only is Russia co-operating with the Syrian-Kurdish YPG faction, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation, but as recently as May Mr Erdogan accused Moscow of funnelling weapons to the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which is at war with the Turkish government in eastern Turkey. And in his Tuesday interview with Tass, Mr Erdogan suggested that arms given to the YPG – which has friendly relations with the US and Russia – end up in the hands of ISIL and hamper the fight against the extremist group.

Although the two countries’ foreign policy goals continue to collide, it seems that – for now at least – their business ties trump this.

A travel ban put in place after the downing of the Russian jet left Turkey without the millions of Russian tourists it hosted every year. And trade between the two countries fell by 43 per cent to U$6.1 billion (Dh22.4bn) between January and May of this year.

The restoration of ties with Russia comes at a time when Turkey is increasingly distancing itself from traditional allies following last month’s coup attempt, which it blames on the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Mr Erdogan’s government has repeatedly demanded that Washington apprehend and hand over Mr Gulen, but the US says it first needs to be presented with evidence and follow judicial process.

This has left Ankara increasingly agitated and hostile. On Tuesday, Turkey’s justice minister said that the US will “sacrifice relations” if it does not hand over Mr Gulen.

Turkey’s reaction to the coup attempt has also damaged its relations with European countries. Amid the post-coup attempt purge that has seen tens of thousands of people sacked from their jobs — and some jailed — the Turkish government has come under heavy criticism from European Union countries. Ankara has also been warned that its efforts to join the EU will fail if Turkey reintroduces the death penalty, a move Mr Erdogan has advocated for following the coup attempt.

In response, Turkish officials have hinted that countries critical of the purge are sympathetic or even aligned with the coup plotters.

On Tuesday, Mr Erdogan pointed out that Mr Putin was one of the first world leaders to call him after the failed coup attempt.

“Your call after the coup attempt made us happy,” he said.

*With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse