On 11 – 12 December the Russian president Vladimir Putin, as part of his lightning tour of the Middle East also visited Turkey, where he had a private meeting with Recep Erdoğan, and also had important and wide-ranging discussions at the delegation level with the most important representative of economic departments and business circles, and the heads of the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense.
The main subject was the transit of gas between Russia and the EU through Turkey, in the light of recent events: in particular the end of the war against DAESH in Syria, and the decision by Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, together with Azerbaijan and Iran, to create their own gas corridor to the EU under the Caspian Sea and through Turkey- bypassing Russia. This route is clearly intended to compete with Russia’s plan to create a Turkish Stream which would deliver gas to Turkish consumers and which would involve the construction of two branches, each with a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters, along the bed of the Black Sea and then through Turkey to the E.U. (Greece and Bulgaria). The goal is clear: to avoid the unreliable Ukrainian transit route. This is essential from a political point of view, bearing in mind that Kiev uses its role as a transit country to create tension in the already complicated relationship between Russia and the European Union.
It must be admitted that the Syrian war has not turned out very well for Gazprom. Now that Syria has been split up into de-escalation zones and the Kurds and America have obtained control over the eastern part of the country, it is impossible to continue with the main gas pipeline from Iran, through Iraq, in order to transport Russian, and, later, Qatari gas. Considering the fate of the South Stream project, which was not long ago being discussed by the Baltic States, the CIS and Iran, the prospects of the Turkish Stream do not seem very hopeful. The three pipelines to Europe announced in January 2015, which were to have a combined capacity of 45 billion cubic meters, have now been reduced to a single one with a capacity of 15 billion cubic meters, and even that has not yet been finally approved and thus remains under question. The Turkish Stream, assuming it is completed and has the proposed capacity, will play a dominant role in the E.U.’s southern gas route and may become the main channel for pumping gas from the region- a region in which we must now include Iran and Qatar. In that case the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline would of necessity be subordinate to the Turkish Stream as it would have less access to resources. Turkmen and Kazakh gas would then have no access to Western markets and could only be transported south, through the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline.
The Syrian war, in addition to the fight against DAESH and the protection of Damascus against foreign aggression, also had the result of encouraging Turkey to agree in full to the Turkish Stream, and this was the only thing that gave Gazprom an advantage. This also provided the bases in Syria with special significance, as they were needed to protect the Turkish Stream. However, not everything has worked out yet. The parameters of the Turkish Stream are an indicator of what has occurred here. Even one transit pipe would almost be a failure, especially concerning avoiding Ukrainian transit.
That is why Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara is very important. The future of Russia’s energy policy largely depends on this visit, in particular Russia’s ability to earn income from gas exports to the E.U without being dependent on transit through Ukraine. It is no coincidence that, according to various media reports, the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is likely to join the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan. It is clear that this is likely to become a successor to the recent three-party summit in Sochi. And it is also clear that the three parties, in addition to discussing Syria, will also now have to discuss the territorial division of the gas corridor in the light of the new situation. Turkey and Iran, in addition to their own interests, will also represent Qatar’s interests. It is also clear that Doha is now very much in need of allies and supporters, in view of its dispute with its fellow members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. And Ankara and Teheran have agreed to take on this role, supporting Qatar in the above dispute. It is true that Russia’s participation in joint projects with Iran, and also now with Qatar- which Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been unable to wear down in 6 months of confrontation and economic blockade- may be highly irritating to Saudi Arabia. And, behind the scenes, the U.S.A. and Israel are standing behind Saudi Arabia. As things are currently developing, Qatar will be given the chance to be included in the Iranian gas pipeline project and start delivering gas to Europe using the Iranian pipeline, which is now definitely going to be incorporated into the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline. The Trans-Anatolian Pipeline, with gas from Azerbaijan, Iran and Qatar (and possibly, in the future, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) will become the dominant system in the region.
Vladimir Putin now as a result of the Syrian war needs to protect at least one Russian thread and get agreement to its participation in the South Stream project. The gas talks between Rouhani, Putin and Erdoğan, if theyhappen, of course, will be the most interesting part of his trip to Turkey, although it is unlikely that the media will have much to say about them. However, it will not be possible to hide the details of the new division, either. Once they are made public it will be clear who the winners – and who the losers – are in this war. The fight for pieces of the European gas market, which started at the beginning of the 2010s, is continuing. Just one round has finished. As of the evening of 12 December there were still no media reports of Rouhani’s arrival in Ankara. It looks as if the meeting has been postponed, or maybe Iran is angling for a better negotiating position.
But as far as Syria is concerned the situation is clear. Here Moscow, Ankara and Teheran have common interests. Moscow can also now find those Syrian Kurds who Ankara is prepared to sit down and negotiate with concerning the regulation of the situation inside Syria. This became clear on December 12. At least, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced that Ankara was “not against the Kurds having a role in the regulation of the situation inside Syria, and it has given Russia a list of the Kurdish groups who it is ready to work with.” He also said, in an interview with the NTV television channel, that Turkey no longer sees any threat from the “Syrian regime”. He added that several Kurdish organizations did pose a danger, namely the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- a Syrian Kurdish terrorist organization-, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “If we do carry out any operations, we will first agree its scope with our allies, including Russia”, Mr. Çavuşoğlu added. “There are a number of Kurdish groups in Syria. We are in contact with them. We are not against the Kurds, on the contrary, we stand together with them. But this has nothing to do with terrorism. Iran is also against the YPG, as it knows that they are the same as the PKK. Russia respects our position, even if it does not support it entirely.”
It remains to be seen how the U.S.A, Saudi Arabia and Israel will react to this. The decision of the Syrian opposition depends on them, and thus also whether the planned Peace Congress will take place in Sochi next February, or whether it will be postponed again. In any event, time is needed before we can get answers to all these questions.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”