While the U.S. mulls how to calibrate its policy in response to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad last week, a set of leaders are hoping that President Trump stays the course and decides to withdraw from Syria. The past week saw Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin sharing the stage in Ankara with their host Tayyip Erdogan. It was not an unprecedented meeting: the power trio already met once in Sochi last November. And there will be, without a doubt, more such get-togethers.
The subject of discussions was the same as before: how to carve up Syria into zones of influence. Turkey has enlarged the territory under its control as a result of Operation Olive Branch against the Kurds in the northwestern enclave of Afrin. The Assad regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is on the cusp of taking over Eastern Ghouta, a suburban area outside Damascus that has been under opposition militia control since the outset of the conflict, and is turning its attention to the largest remaining rebel stronghold, the city of Idlib and its surrounding district. Following the chemical attack against Douma, the Turkish Foreign Ministry blasted the Syrian regime but shied for naming and shaming Russia. Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin faulted “The entire international community, primarily countries that have an influence on the Syrian regime.”As the war grinds on, there will be a great deal of horse-trading in the weeks and months to come. And America, the trio of leaders hope, will be watching from the sidelines.
Are we bearing witness to a post-American order dawning in the Middle East? At the Moscow Conference on International Security earlier this month, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu boasted about the Russian-Turkish-Iranian “alliance” having sorted Syria. If the late Evgeny Primakov, Russia’s influential and knowledgeable foreign minister (and Middle East hand), were still around, he would rub his hands with glee at the sight of Russia effectively balancing against the global hegemon in league with regional allies. Turkey’s estrangement from its Western partner-patrons and the rise of Iranian influence, from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut, appears to be a harbinger of a permanent shift to multipolarity not only in the Middle East, but also in Eurasia. History and geography both bind Turkey and Iran to the Caucasus and Central Asia (including Afghanistan). If the “alliance” Shoigu extolled proves enduring, perhaps we could see it continue its work beyond Syria.
The critical question is whether relations within the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle are purely transactional, or if there is a longer-term realignment at play.
Russia and Iran may well not be able to transcend their shared pasts. The Iranians harbor long memories of first the Russian Empire and then the Soviets invading, occupying, and annexing their territories. More recently, Moscow has repeatedly used Iran as a bargaining chip in relations with the U.S. In June 2010, the Iranians remember that Russia backed UN economic sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear program. (Turkey, a nonpermanent member of the Security Council at the time, voted against). Furthermore, the Kremlin dragged its feet on an order of S-300 surface-to-air missiles first placed in 2007, finally delivering them only in late 2016. Finally, the Russian Federation has positive ties with the Islamic Republic’s bitterest rivals: Israel and, lately, Saudi Arabia.
Yet the coordinated intervention in Syria from 2015 onwards, where Russia has been providing the airpower and Iran the boots on the ground, has arguably moved the relationship past old grudges, perhaps even elevating it beyond the merely transactional. The standoff between Moscow and the West and the prospect of the Trump Administration ripping up the Iranian nuclear deal is likely to bring Russians and Iranians even closer.
And then there’s Turkey. Among all the violent convulsions in the region, it’s easy to lose sight of remarkable Erdogan’s pivot in 2016-2017 has been, going from a competitor to a partner of Russia and Iran. Partly this is because Erdogan downscaled his ambitions in Syria. He now grudgingly accepts that Assad will retain power in Damascus and that a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime reminiscent of Egypt under Mohammed Morsi is not in Syria’s future. His goal is to keep the Syrian Kurds in check—a goal that Iran, home to a sizeable Kurdish community, also happens to share. Last fall, Ankara and Tehran pushed back jointly against the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq after it held an ill-advised independence referendum. And Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurdish YPG in Afrin also favors Iran, as it is a blow to U.S. prestige in the region. The message is that America is an unreliable ally.
Undercutting the U.S. seems to have shaped Russia’s calculus, too. Moscow green-lighted Olive Branch by opening Syrian airspace and pulling out its military police from Afrin, where they had previously been embedded with the YPG. Having taken over Afrin city and much of the surrounding area, the Turkish military and its allied Free Syrian Army are now focusing on areas further west, which the Kurds hold alongside U.S. and other Western troops. The mounting tensions over the town of Manbij, where an American and a British soldier were recently killed by an improvised explosive device (likely planted by the FSA), are a delight to analysts in Russia’s foreign ministry.
The Ankara summit was not just about the carve-up, though it was about that too. With Assad already making gains in both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib (where his loyalists seized a strategic airport in January), the time appeared to be ripe for a more comprehensive deal on who is getting what in Syria. But beyond this, energy issues were clearly on the agenda. During his visit to Ankara, Putin and Erdogan oversaw, via video conference, the groundbreaking ceremony of the $20 billion nuclear power plant to be built by Rosatom at Akkuyu, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Finally, the meeting yielded a target delivery date for the S-400s missiles Turkey is procuring from Russia: July 2019.
So what are the longer term strategic implications of this emerging “axis”? Turkey’s long-term trajectory will determine a lot. Ankara may well be abandoning the West to join Russia and Iran in some kind of longer-term resistance to Euro-Atlantic hegemony. Erdogan’s refusal to expel Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning, Turkey’s continued non-participation in the Western sanctions against Moscow, the confrontation with the U.S. in northern Syria, and unending squabbles with key EU members, suggest some kind of more permanent realignment could be in the offing.
A more conservative interpretation is that Turkey is charting its own course, and is thus pushing aggressively for what it considers its national interest by balancing between East and West. By that read, Ankara won’t pull the plug on NATO, its ultimate insurance policy, nor will it cut bridges to Europe, still its main trade and investment partner. Though it did not produce much, the recent mini-summit between Erdogan and Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, and the European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker in Varna, Bulgaria, suggest that the conversation is ongoing. And despite his penchant for bashing the U.S. (it goes down well with voters) and the widespread belief among his loyalists that America was involved in the failed coup in July 2016, Turkey’s strongman is, in all likelihood, still open to doing business with Trump’s team.
In a situation as fluid as the one in the Middle East today, it would be foolish to make long-term bets, one way or another. But Erdogan’s double game is indicative of a lingering, inherent weakness of the Russia-Iran-Turkey grouping. The three have ultimately come together as a result of U.S. policy choices. As a result, America still has the means to co-opt at least one, and possibly more, of the players, should it choose to do so.
Turkey is hopeful that the U.S. would ultimately drop the Kurds and come to an arrangement in northern Syria letting its troops and their Sunni Arab and Turkmen allies to extend the buffer zone well west of the Euphrates. Ankara is waiting to see what kind of policy incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton push for. There certainly will be cheers in Turkey should the U.S. launch fresh strikes against the Assad regime in the coming days. No doubt, Erdogan will also be privately hinting that Turkey could help in containing Iran as the strategy on the JCPOA develops.
Whether the hawks on Trump’s foreign policy team buy that is another matter. Bolton is sour on the Turks’ flirtation with Putin and their drift away from NATO. In 2016, right after the failed coup in Turkey, he denounced Erdogan for seeking to establish “an Islamic caliphate”. And Turkey is unlikely to let go of its relationship with Russia either, continuing to hedge its bets. So if it happens, it will not be a natural melding of the minds between the Trump administration and the Turks. The art of the deal is getting much tougher these days.