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Syria and the Complex Geostrategic Game of Russia-Turkey-Iran

The differences between the Russians, the Turks, and the Iranians in Syria are slowly surfacing and gaining greater weight. An Iranian news site — TABNAK, which is supposedly “close” to the official line in Tehran — warned its readers on January 4 that Russia is increasingly siding with Turkey in Syria.

Former Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Mohsen Rezaee, who runs the site, is known for his hardline approach to Syria. TABNAK said that Iranians should drop their optimism regarding Syria, as Putin is gradually tilting towards Ankara’s objectives in Syria. “Can we consider the inclusion of Turkey in the attempts to end the war in Syria a threat? Or should Iran use the Turkish role to create new opportunities to reach our goals in Syria?,” the network questioned.

In raising the issue in this way, TABNAK has put the choices facing Tehran in Syria in a striking form. Rezaee, who occupies now the post of the head of Iran’s “Expediency Discernment Council,”said through his site that Russia pushed Iran out of the talks that led to the ceasefire. He pointed out that Russian air force has actually started helping the Turkey-back force the Euphrates Shield (ES) in fighting ISIL. “It was hardly imaginable a few months ago to see a Russia Su-24 paving the road for pro-Turkish forces to advance in northern Syria. Soon, Turkey will achieve its goal in that region,” the site said.

Iran is not the only worried country —there are mounting concerns in NATO capitals regarding Russian-Turkish rapprochement.

However, the emerging cooperation between Ankara and Moscow has three important features. Firstly, it may progress in a way that shows the Turks that Moscow is making a lot more from its overture to Ankara than Turkey could ever achieve from its cooperation with Moscow. Moreover, it will place Turkey under pressure in a way that may further reduce its negotiating space with other relevant players. Secondly, it may encourage more Iranian officials to explore their roads to the West, at least only verbally, in order to pressure Moscow. And thirdly, it may have a profoundly negative impact on the situation inside Syria.

Russia believes that by enhancing its relations with Turkey, it is actually weakening the eastern flank of NATO. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik hinted January 4 that Ankara may consider closing Incirlik. The reason for Turkey’s public debate on the future of Incirlik is that Ankara does not see the US air mission from the base as vital to its presence in northern Syria anymore. Russian planes are providing ES forces on the ground with the needed support.

While Moscow, just like Washington, does not approve of President Erdogan’s plans to attack Kurdish forces, the Russians, to Ankara’s satisfaction, committed themselves to preventing the establishment of a quasi-independent Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders with Syria. Furthermore, it is the Russians, not the Americans, who currently shape events in north Syria.

Erdogan’s accusation of the US (that it is helping ISIL) should not be understood merely as lip service to the Russians. No doubt, Moscow is pleased by this rhetoric, but the Russians have their eyes on seriously weakening NATO’s presence in Turkey as one of their ultimate objectives of going to bed with Erdogan.

Moreover, Turkey is a key nation in fighting the rise of Islamic terrorism in the Caucasus and Central Asia region. As a Sunni State, Turkey can be effective in helping Russia stem the threat of religious radicalism in that region. An alliance with Turkey will give Russia a larger margin of maneuverability in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, while Turkey will secure its southern front — that is, its borders with Syria — it may risk increasing tensions with Western Europe, particularly Germany and the UK. The EU is Turkey’s number one import and export partner, while Turkey ranks seventh in the EU’s top import and fifth in export markets. Turkey’s main exports markets are the EU, Iraq, Russia, USA, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran.

However, one third of Turkey’s exports and one quarter of its imports are in trade ties with major NATO members. Russia is not even on the list of the first 10 importers from Ankara. However, Russians sell to the Turks goods worth over $20 billion, roughly 11 percent of Russia’s total imports. Erdogan, in his panic over a Kurdish nightmare, may have underestimated his leverage over Moscow.

But NATO members have a clear advantage over Russia in the area of economic ties with Ankara. However, this leverage should not be exaggerated. It is a double-edged sword and in the today’s world, with low growth rates in all major economies, it will not be easy to use. If used, at least in the area of trade tariffs with the EU, it can nevertheless put pressure on the Turks.

The dynamics could be summed up as follows: Turkey gets a limited benefit (Syria — the Kurds) and provides Russia with important geostrategic breakthroughs, while leaving NATO the main loser from such Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

As is clear from Iran’s media, there is a sense of alarm over Russia-Turkey rapprochement in Iran. Iran’s plan to maintain a land bridge from its territories through Iraq and Syria to south Lebanon and the East Mediterranean shores implies a zero-sum game in Syria — that is to say, putting that country firmly under Assad’s control and cleaning all the road, from Anbar to Latakia, of any armed Sunni presence.

Russia sees this Iranian plan as a potential source of indirect threat. For if Iran continues its killing spree against Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and places their territories under its control, this will beget a rise in sectarianism region-wide. Sectarianism creates religious radicalism and ultimately exacerbates Russia’s pains with Muslims inside its borders in or in its periphery.

Turkey, at one earlier point, harbored a zero-sum game as well, albeit in exactly the opposite direction of Tehran’s. However, Ankara was convinced, particularly after Russia’s military intervention in Syria in fall 2015, that it will be very risky for its own national interests to carry on seeking this difficult end.

Naturally, Russia does not look at the conflict in Syria, or at the different strategies of its “friends” in Tehran and now in Ankara, through those opposite zero-sum perspectives. Its only lens is how to gain as much as possible from its Syrian field operation in terms of its own security and geopolitical agendas. Ankara was compelled to drop its zero-sum plans in Syria. Now, it’s Iran’s turn.

Iran will have, therefore, to think of ways to keep its objective alive. Logically, Tehran will try to make some friendly gestures to the West to pressure Moscow. Some in the West will fall victim, as usual, to the new Iranian seduction game. But ultimately, the West cannot offer the Iranians what the Russians refuse to offer them: the land bridge to the east Mediterranean.

Iran, on the other hand, can consider giving up its imperial aspiration, otherwise called regional expansion to the Mediterranean, at least for the time being, and reluctantly accept the Russian game plan, which includes a structural role for the Turks. But before that happens, Tehran will pull all possible tricks to test the resolve of the Russians and the Turks.

The bottomline is that Tehran cannot carry the burden of what the Russians are doing in Syria. The Iranians know that without the Russian military role in Syria, the chain of defeat will continue, which was reality before Putin rushed to help. Russia started yet another symbolic withdrawal of some military units to remind all that it can pull out all its forces with short notice. Obviously, it will not do that. But refreshing the memory is needed sometimes.

And this leads us directly to Syria. The Iranian game is to get Assad and its own militias to torpedo the Russian-Turkish deal. As it appears at the moment of writing this report, Tehran is indeed gaining traction in this regard. It also has Assad tilting to its position, as he fears that Moscow will sacrifice him on the alter of Erdogan and under the temptation of gaining Syria and Turkey with one stone.

Violations of the ceasefire by Assad and Shia forces are a daily occurrence. Assassinations of opposition leaders are also the norm. Recently, a group of Hezbollah refused to allow Russian soldiers access to the site they control. A Hezbollah member acknowledged, in video that went viral on social media, that the Russians and the Shia militias “now control all of Syria” and that Assad forces have no say on the ground.

Therefore, it is not likely now that Moscow will rush the battle of Idlib. The Russians seek to remain needed until they finish the bulk of their regional maneuver. However, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah may try on their own to attack the one remaining stronghold of the opposition in Idlib.

The best possible scenario for the Iranians is to keep the Russians in Syria but only within the boundaries of the Iranian strategy. Those who know Putin well understand that this is virtually impossible. In the end, the Iranians will have to go along with Moscow-Ankara deal, but never before doing whatever it takes to torpedo it.

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