The sultan and the tsar: A modern fairy tale from Ankara


Vying for influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to hold a joint press conference in Ankara, on April 3. (AFP)

Once upon a time in Ankara, the sultan of Turkey and the tsar of Russia met and agreed on a foolproof problem-sharing, problem-solving plan that would strike awe into every heart. It was a masterstroke of decisiveness, the purest exaltation of the art of the possible.

The sultan and the tsar decided to de-recognise problems because that way they would just go away. If problems don’t exist, they said, there was nothing to solve. Who cares if the odious nabobs of the West have the cheek to call us a problem, we don’t even know the word problem.

“Done,” said the tsar evenly. In a previous avatar, he had served as a spy for his country and rarely spoke overly loudly or imprecisely.

“Done deal,” shouted the sultan, who was much less restrained, having never been anything other than a politician given to oratorical swagger.

So it was decided and each returned to his palace, clasping the deal like a pearl, certain it was all the riches needed to live happily ever after.


Let’s cut to reality even though there was a decidedly fairy-tale quality to the meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara on April 3 and 4. The two autocrats, increasingly reviled by the West, clung together, an embrace in isolation and born of isolation, with Iranian President Hassan Rohani playing gooseberry if not fairy godmother.

Can it last? Could the Turkish sultan and the Russian tsar’s closeness end with the hyperbolic phrase that wraps up most fairy tales: happily ever after?

No, because it is more an “alignment of convenience” than a beautiful friendship in the words of Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. Erdogan, Cafarella suggested, finds it politic now to pledge his troth to Putin and Rohani. “He’ll remain aligned with them as long as he deems it necessary to pursue his goals against the (mainly Kurdish Syrian People’s Protection Units militia) YPG,” she said.

It’s a fair point. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how long it will take Turkey to achieve its goals against the Kurds in northern Syria.

However, as in any good fairy tale, stardust appears to have worked its magic on the main protagonists. Turkey, Russia and Iran, three of the most influential foreign military actors in Syria, are all trying to work through their differences and these are many. Russia and Iran are for Bashar Assad’s regime; Turkey is against. Turkey wants to crush the Kurds but, until recently, Russia and Iran viewed them more benignly.

Even so, the tsar and the sultan closed the deal on the Kurds in January. Putin picked Erdogan over the Kurds and Russian military observers obligingly moved away from north-western Syria just as the Turkish government announced it was hellbent on going into the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin.

Erdogan repaid Putin’s boon with one of his own, limiting his response to the regime’s assault on Eastern Ghouta to fierce criticism but nothing more.

Meanwhile, Iran began to see the virtue of playing along with Turkey to weaken the YPG. Mensur Akgun, head of the international relations department at Istanbul’s Kultur University, explains Tehran’s logic as follows: “Fighters linked to the PKK have been active in Iran as well, although not as much as Turkey. Therefore, Iran, like Turkey, does not want a strong YPG existence that might lead to an independent state there.”

As in most fairy tales, dragons lurk. Iran has been angered by Turkey’s pledge to take the Syrian town of Tel Rifaat and push further east.

Ankara, as a senior Turkish official has said, wants Moscow to “control the (Assad) regime more,” thereby granting more humanitarian access in Eastern Ghouta and reining in air strikes on rebel-held areas.

Long term, it seems difficult to imagine a viable alliance between three countries with very different priorities vying for influence in the Black Sea region.

That would, indeed, be the stuff of fairy tales.