Against a backdrop of turmoil among its neighbours, Turkey hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday for the inauguration of a Black Sea gas pipeline.
Mr Putin arrived on a flight from Damascus to join Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul for the unveiling of TurkStream, a dual pipeline that will carry natural gas to Europe via Turkey.
The nine-year conflict in Syria as well as the escalation between Iran and the US and developments in Libya led discussions between the two leaders before the ceremony.
President Bashar Al Assad’s latest offensive in Idlib targets some Turkey-backed opposition groups and Ankara is concerned it will send a flood of refugees towards the Turkish border. Russian and Iranian support for Mr Al Assad has seen him regain control of most of the country.
Within hours of Mr Putin’s plane touching down in Istanbul, Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing US troops following last week’s killing of Iranian commander Qassam Suleimani in an American air strike.
As well as the crisis sparked by the assassination of one of Iran’s most senior officials, Turkey’s troop deployment to Libya was also under discussion. Turkey supports the government in Tripoli while Moscow backs the eastern-based forces that have besieged the capital since April.
Speaking after a two-hour head-to-head meeting, Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin praised their countries’ co-operation, with the former calling TurkStream “the latest beacon of solidarity of the close co-operation and solidarity between Turkey and Russia”.
However, they also acknowledged the ongoing crises. The Russian leader spoke of “a very challenging and difficult time” and a “worsening situation” in the region.
Mr Erdogan said that tensions between the US and Iran had “finally reached an undesirable level that none of us wish to see".
“As Turkey, we don’t want to see the Gulf region turning into a stage for proxy wars. We don’t want to see Iraq, Syria or Lebanon turning into a landscape of conflict and tensions.”
He warned that Iraq’s “very fragile stability” was at risk, adding: “Nobody has the right to abuse their own interests and rights by turning Iraq into a pit of fire and leading this entire region into a nightmare of conflict.”
Despite regional disagreements, Moscow and Ankara have moved closer in recent years, joining with Iran in 2017 to launch the Astana peace process in Syria.
Russian and Turkish troops have established joint patrols along the Turkey-Syria border while Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles has further reinforced ties.
The TurkStream project between Russian energy giant Gazprom and Turkey’s Botas will see one pipeline deliver 15.75 bcm of gas annually to Turkey while a second pipe supplies the same level to Europe via Bulgaria.
The 930km pipeline runs from Anapa in Russia to Kiyikoy in Turkey’s Eastern Thrace region at a depth of up to 2,200m below the Black Sea. Construction began in May 2017.
The pipeline allows Russia to switch its gas supplies to Europe from a pipeline that runs through Ukraine that has been subject to interruptions amid worsening ties between the two countries.
The launch of TurkStream came after months of tension in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Cyprus, Greece and others over energy exploration.
In November, Mr Erdogan signed an agreement on maritime boundaries in the east Mediterranean with Tripoli’s Fayez Al Sarraj that threatens to block a joint Cypriot-Greek-Israeli pipeline to Europe.
Although repeating his warning that Turkey could not be legitimately excluded from hydrocarbon exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, Mr Erdogan offered Turkey’s neighbours the chance for co-operation.
“Let’s not convert the cradle of civilisation throughout the ages, that’s to say the Mediterranean basin, into a land of tension,” he said. “Instead let’s turn it into an area of co-operation and solidarity.”
The inauguration ceremony, which was also attended by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, saw tight security around Istanbul’s Halic Congress Centre with 7,200 police on duty for the event.