The Three Stooges at the helm in Syria: an uncertain future

Neve Lynch

As the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia descended on the Iranian capital of Tehran on September 7 to discuss a new round of escalations over Idlib, Syrians of all ages and affiliations, as well as the West it seems, held their breath. The anticipated fall of the final Turkish backed rebel-held enclave in Syria signalled the possibility of victory for President Bashar al-Assad, yet the United Nations have warned that any offensive would likely unleash a humanitarian disaster for Idlib’s 3 million residents. While the trio left Tehran at an impasse, in a major diplomatic win for Ankara, Russia and Turkey privately agreed on September 17 to enforce a demilitarised zone in the province, effectively forestalling an assault on the region.

The changing tides

At the September summit, Turkish President Erdogan, while appealing to his partners for a diplomatic resolution, dispatched military reinforcements to secure Idlib in a move designed to ward off the kind of ground assault favoured by Russia and Iran. The outcome of the summit resulted in warnings from the West that Russia was pushing the region towards the edge of an abyss, with Turkish aspirations of negotiating a ceasefire stalled by the reluctance of Russia and Iran to hear the concerns of their Astana partner.

Despite seemingly fundamental disagreements between the parties, or more accurately between Turkey and Russia/Iran, all parties continue to view the alliance as conducive to their own strategic interests, and as a platform to promote their own agendas in Syria and the wider Middle East. Another takeaway from this summit is that the parties all continue to see the presence of the United States in the region as a persistent problem, albeit for differing reasons.

Turkey in Syria

By playing “good cop” to Russia’s “bad cop”, Turkey has emerged from the latest round of negotiations with its credibility vis-à-vis various opposition groups, and to a lesser extent the West, intact. An attack on Idlib, a city situated close to the Turkish border, holds multiple threats for Ankara, with the expected humanitarian crisis likely to not only send many of Idlib’s 3 million civilians fleeing into Turkey, but also give rise to a security nightmare. This much was said by Sam Heller, a Syria expert with the International Crisis Group, who suggested that “there is no way… to launch a military offensive that doesn’t have negative, injurious effects on Turkey.”

In the early days of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and the West backed opposition fighters, but the West jumped ship when it deemed the rebels to be pro-Islamic. Since then, Turkey has been sending its troops to flush out Islamic State and U.S-backed Kurdish fighters, with the latter deemed a threat in that it encourages the aspirations of Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgents.

Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian style has earned him an icy reception from Washington, with domestic reforms aimed at curtailing individual freedoms met with disdain from the West. When Turkey’s relationship with the US reached its lowest in decades, Ankara began the search for new partners and found a willing, albeit difficult, partner in Russia. However, as Turkey has sought to strengthen its ties with Russia, it has found itself further ostracised by the West and its NATO partners.

A fragile and complicated relationship

The Idlib crisis has exposed the important dynamics underlying the Astana trio, namely the resistance faced by Turkey when negotiating with its Russian and Iranian counterparts. Regardless, by appealing directly to the US and Europe for support in avoiding an offensive, Turkey has successfully played Russia off, pushing Moscow to compromise on its previously immovable position. While Russia has indicated that it will not launch an offensive in Idlib in the immediate future, Moscow continues to pressure Ankara to clear the province of “terrorist groups”.

Consequently, bombing campaigns across the war-torn province conducted by Russia, with the assistance of the Syrian Air Force, have reinforced to Turkey that its latest diplomatic win is unlikely to create or sustain any meaningful peace in a region devastated by 7 years of civil war.

From the outside it appears that the trio have little in common. Dubbed an “alliance of convenience”, their conflicting priorities and divergent interests are apparent, yet the trio seem united on some issues. For example, all were in favour of some sort of US presence in the region to balance out countervailing forces in the form of Israeli aggression and Iranian militias, or to fund reconstruction efforts in Syria.

The divergent interests of the parties are no more apparent than in the simple fact that each member wishes to keep the othersat bay. Turkey seeks to constrict Iranian influence and develop closer ties with Moscow, while simultaneously aiming to depose Assad. Russia desires closer ties with Turkey but supports the continued existence of a friendly government in Damascus. Iran prioritises the maintenance of supply lines to Lebanon and aims to keep Turkey out of Iraq. Analysts concur that this multitude of conflicting aims has resulted in summits and meetings that are little more than photo opportunities.

The Kremlin in Syria

While Russia was observed strong-arming Turkey at the summit, its private agreement to enact a demilitarised zone – similar to that previously proposed by Turkey – has shown that Putin is willing to compromise on what many had seen as an immovable position. What finally pushed Putin to yield to Erdogan’s demands remains unclear, but Turkey’s efforts to compel the United Nations to voice their concerns with greater volume, force and efficiency vis-à-vis Russia were certainly a significant factor. Regardless, Russia appears determined to reinforce to the international community that Turkey’s diplomatic coup will neither safeguard the future of Idlib’s inhabitants, nor result in meaningful peace.

Russia, along with its regional ally Iran, are the largest sponsors of the Assad regime. This support first took the form of political sponsorship in the UN and later morphed into a broader campaign, fought across many fronts including through the use of military force and propaganda. The broad nature of Russia’s campaign has been extremely successful, largely because Russia’s goal to preserve Assad’s regime and weaken US influence in the region has remained coherent and consistent.

The third wheel

Iran has been neither been seen nor heard on the Syrian issue in recent weeks. Rather, Tehran has seemingly adopted a “wait and see” policy.

Like Russia, Iran has been an orthodox opponent of the West and Turkey and has openly clashed with Erdogan on various issues surrounding the Syrian conflict. With Moscow providing significant economic support to Tehran, including to its nuclear program, it does not seem likely that Iran will deviate from Russia’s official Syrian policy anytime soon.

An uncertain future

It is not yet clear whether Turkey has secured the long-term future of Idlib and its inhabitants, nor is it clear how or when this bloody civil war will draw to a close.

Regardless, the negotiating table and the ongoing peace efforts seem destined to be dominated by Turkish, Russian and Iranian representatives, with Western powers no longer commanding an influential seat at the table. What this means for the future of Syria is deeply troubling and unfortunately, the international community can do little but watch as the chaos unfolds and do its best to comprehend the aftermath.

Neve Lynch is currently completing year 12 at Brisbane State High School. She is interested in studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Queensland and pursuing a career in international relations.

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