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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Turkey, Iran and Russia: how war in Syria has changed three rivals, and what happens next

In a joint statement after talks in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish and Iranian counterparts Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani have announced that they plan to hold ‘a conference’ on Syria’s post-war future.

Before we come to the glaring point, we might note that Russia and Iran want Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who has so far been allowed to break every single agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran on matters including ‘de-escalation zones’, to remain in power. To this end, Russia claims Assad has agreed to constitutional changes in Syria and to hold elections ‘overseen by the UN’.

But we should note that Assad already claims to have held ‘free and fair’ elections in Syria, and Russia backs him on that claim despite the rest of the world agreeing he never has.

Simultaneously, in an effort to deflect blame from Assad over his use of chemical weapons, Russia agreed to the setting up of the Joint Investigative Mechanism.

But as soon as this body began to show that in fact Assad has attacked his own people with chemical weapons more than 20 times in the last six years – in direct breach of international law – Russia vetoed its continued activity and then blamed the US, claiming the latter had ‘deliberately created a means with which to attack the Syrian leader’.

It seems unlikely that Russia would support any UN conclusion that said an election won by Assad was not free or fair, and Russia has in the last six years used its veto ten times to prevent the UN officially concluding that Assad has behaved poorly or unacceptably.

Erdogan said: ‘We have reached a consensus on helping the transition to an inclusive, free, fair and transparent political process that will be carried out under the leadership and ownership of the Syrian people.’

It is hard to see this being allowed to happen, if indeed even Erdogan believes it will, and one must wonder exactly how far he or any other state would be willing to go if it does not.

The major point, however, is exactly what such a conference would be for.

Because the United Nations is already attempting to lead exactly such conferences, with the next scheduled to take place in Geneva on Tuesday 28 November (it is no coincidence that this Sochi meeting took place less than a week before). So why would Russia, Turkey and Iran wish to set up a conference which already exists?

In Russia’s case, there are three major reasons.

The first is its desire – and to some extent need – to protect Assad. It feels it must do this because

a) it has treaties with Assad which, if it broke, would damage its international standing;

b) it does not wish to see Assad deposed because this would almost certainly give the US even more ‘reach’ in the Middle East – or at the very least strengthen the US’ major ally in the region, Saudi Arabia (because Saudi Arabia is a Sunni state, and the majority of Syrians are also Sunnis, which is why Iran also backs Assad, an Alawite, as it wishes to avoid another Sunni state being formed in the region);

c) there are significant benefits to Russia of close ties between Russia and Syria, not least the direct access it offers Russia to the Mediterranean (at present, Russian ships must enter the Mediterranean from the Bosphorus, requiring good relations with Turkey: we have noted on several previous occasions the measures being taken by the US and China to gain and strengthen Mediterranean alliances), which is extremely unlikely to continue if those who oppose the man it has so strongly backed take power.

The second is because for the first time since 1990, Russia is once again at the absolute centre of global politics. It knows it is unlikely ever to match the US militarily, and it knows that it cannot hope to challenge China economically.

But Putin also understands that Russia does not need to match the US weapon for weapon, but instead to be more willing to use those weapons, as it has done in both Ukraine and Syria, in the latter case aiming those weapons against Syrian civilians: it does not need greater strength than the US, it simply needs to give the sense that it has nothing to lose and so is prepared to risk more (this is not to suggest that US military policy is somehow more ‘merciful’ than Russia’s, simply that the US has shown over and over again that it is not willing to risk an all-out war with Russia, particularly over states it does not sufficiently care about. Geography plays a part here, as the US is literally on the other side of the world from Ukraine and Syria. This is a bluff Putin has played repeatedly, and so far, well).

China poses a greater puzzle, but at present, Russia appears to be cultivating allies next to or close to states that may be important to China’s future plans, for example Syria and Iran, both of which could be part of, benefit for, or externally-influence China’s ‘belt and road’ plan, which effectively proposes to recreate the Silk Road between Greece (and by extension Italy) and China.

If Russia manages to turn its aggressive military policy into a seeming ‘peace-broker and keeper’ in the Middle East, then this, combined with its already-proven willingness to break international law and kill civilians to protect its allies, carves it out a ‘third road’ – neither through military nor trade means, but simply by being there, using its power and ‘taking control’ of situations.

The above is also important because, as in the piece on Turkey earlier today, it is important for Putin to show Russian people that he can bring – and indeed is bringing – Russia back from the ‘brink’ on which it wobbled after 1989.

The third is, to put it crudely, that similarly to the US, Russia presently regards the UN as an inconvenience. Equally similarly to the US, it has concluded not only that it should attempt to block the UN, side-line it and/or ignore it because that way it can follow the courses it wishes to, but also because the more often it does so, the more often the UN’s member states, and their citizens, believe the UN is a powerless and/or ‘controlled’ (whether by the US or Russia, both benefit by the loss of faith in the UN) by its most powerful member states (it is a shame that the UN itself occasionally appears to enable this) and that therefore it is a failed idea. In this way, the US and Russia are able to reduce a body which in essence has/had the capability to prevent both from exercising their most aggressive and imperialist tendencies, to an irrelevance.

For this reason, for Russia, the Sochi talks and the conference they propose are not only an attempt to end the Syrian war on the terms it wants, but also an attempt to strengthen and develop Russia’s role, while further weakening the UN as an entity.

As noted, Iran’s involvement in the Syrian war began before that of Russia, and is (mostly) for different reasons. However, almost by accident, one outcome is that Iran, which in the last quarter of a century has been an effective international outcast, is now one of the closest allies of a Russian state which is attempting to become one of the world’s three most powerful nations, and may well succeed. This is an alliance Iran urgently needs.

In Turkey’s case, things are a little more complex. Turkey absolutely opposes Assad, and has from the start worked to help those trying to remove him from power.

But its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has, through his own actions (particularly since the failed coup of 15 July 2016, though his actions from that point represent an amplification, rather than a change in direction, from his previous activities) significantly weakened his ties with the US, EU and NATO, and failed so far in its attempts to build stronger ties to its East (which may in themselves have been an effort to persuade the EU and/or US to make new concessions to Turkey).

It is far from clear whether a move towards Russia is part of a genuine attempt to build a longer-term alliance, or another effort to force the EU and US to make new offers of support, but in either case, as its Western relations have soured, it has warmed to Russian approaches.

Equally, Turkey fears repercussions from a Russia-backed Syria which is after all Turkey’s direct Southern neighbour, with which it shares a long land border, and Russia is its closest super-power, as both border on the Black Sea. Once again, as Turkey’s relations with NATO sour, the state feels some trepidation regarding its future between one of the world’s most powerful states and a nation it (Russia) has slaughtered people within to prop up its leader.

The bringing down of a Russian jet which flew into Turkish airspace in November 2015 has not helped this fear, as Russia itself noted that the US was not willing to back Turkey in that incident. It is hard to believe Erdogan did not draw conclusions from this, or that Putin has never alluded to it in their meetings.

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