One of the more curious and troubling developments in the course of the Syrian civil war has been Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and cooperation with Iran.
For centuries, Turkey and Russia were enemies, regardless of who ruled each country. To begin with, Russia considered itself (and still considers itself) the custodian of the true Eastern Orthodox Church after the fall of Byzantium to the Turks. The Ottomans regularly fought the czars, especially over Russian attempts to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey remained neutral in World War II, which benefitted Nazi Germany as much if not more than Soviet Russia. And Turkey joined NATO, giving the alliance its longest border with the Soviet Union. There was never much love between the two countries.
Turkish relations with Iran were nearly as antagonistic for some 150 years, but subsequently transformed into mutual caution and suspicion. After all, Shia Persia never came under the control of the Sunni Ottomans. That the three countries have begun to work closely together to contain the Syrian civil war is more a function of their perceived perception of American weakness than of any upsurge in mutual love.
While the Trump administration has been more active in Syria than its predecessor, supplying weapons and support to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and responding to Syrian use of chemical weapons with the April 2017 cruise missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat airbase, the memory of the Obama “red line” still lingers. It is not at all clear how much further Washington is willing to get enmeshed in Syria in the short-term, much less in the medium and long-term.
Russia, on the other hand, has new, long-term leases for its bases in Syria. Iran has a much deeper vested interest in Syria and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad than Washington does in the ever-weaker Syrian opposition. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears Russia far less than his Ottoman and republican predecessors did, while his relations with NATO and the EU continue to deteriorate, commensurate with the increase in Turkey’s human rights violations. Erdogan has actually threatened to review Turkey’s alliance with NATO, something that would have been unheard of during the Cold War.
Russian relations with Turkey have grown increasingly warmer since a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24M all-weather attack aircraft over the Turkish border on Nov. 24, 2016. Turkey’s relations with Iran remain proper, if cautious. And the Astana agreement that the three countries reached in May 2017, without active American involvement, has already resulted in three de-escalation zones in Syria.
It is certainly possible that this three-way partnership will be short-lived. The national interests of the three are not congruent. Much will depend on the United States, however. Should Washington remain active in Syria, or increase its efforts there, Turkey will be far less likely to abandon the West for other partners. If, however, the United States washes its hands of Syria, the Turkish-Russian-Iranian connection may be the start of a beautiful friendship.