Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Marriage of convenience

Signs of a new alliance in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Russia and Iran should not be misread. It is a temporary expedient that will lead to nothing, writes Bassel Oudat from Damascus

Aleppo
Aleppo
Al-Ahram Weekly

The Syrian opposition appeared unfazed by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s statement that Ankara has no objections to President Bashar Al-Assad remaining during any transitional phase. Despite Yildirim’s words the opposition believes there will be no radical shift in Turkey’s position in the face of Moscow’s current show of force, citing as evidence the continued support Ankara is offering the armed Syrian opposition.

Yet the Turkish statement is bewildering. Ankara may not want to clash with Russia again but it is unlikely to allow the Kurds to take full control of the Syrian-Turkish border. Nor will it fundamentally change its stance on the Syrian regime since to do so would mean strengthening the Iranian presence in Syria. Both issues are central to Turkish national security. Neither is up for discussion.

Turkey is placing limits on its rapprochement with Russia, keeping one eye on calming tensions with Russia, the other on its NATO partners. Ankara appears to be banking on closer ties with Moscow being sufficiently worrying to its American and European allies to prompt them to change their own policies towards Turkey.

It was the failure of Russia and the Syrian regime to take the city of Aleppo that led Moscow to reassess its hand. Russia began flexing its political and military muscles to remind all parties, Syrian and non-Syrian, that it remains the key player in the country and the region.

Moscow advised China to declare it was entering the Syrian fray and would train regime forces. The announcement served as a reminder that Russia and China are important allies — at least as far as the Middle East is concerned — and together constitute a formidable military power.

Russia followed this by announcing it would use Iran’s Hamadan military base to launch air strikes in Syria. This move, too, was calculated to remind everyone of Moscow’s influence, this time with Iran. The reasons Russia gave for its decision are hardly persuasive. Proximity and a drive to save costs are “poor excuses”, says Saad Bashir, an opposition figure.

Bashir told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Russian-operated Hamimim base “is capable of serving most Russian military aircraft and it could be expanded within days if it needs to cater for aircraft carrying very large ordnance”.

Bashir predicts the Iranians will soon backtrack on the permission given to Russia. There is a strong current of opinion in Iran that rejects the permission as an infringement of Iranian sovereignty.

Russia has also encouraged the Syrian regime to launch air strikes against the Kurds in northern Syria, proffering a gift to Ankara and an indirect challenge to the US which ostensibly supports the Kurds. Washington’s response was slow in coming and when it did arrive consisted of little beyond cautioning that regime planes were hovering over areas under Kurdish control. The fact is the White House was probably far from unhappy with the Russian move. It served as a warning to the overly ambitious Kurds who have not stopped their expansion in northern Syria at the line carefully drawn by the US in consideration of its Turkish ally.

These Russian moves show how erroneous it is to assume a tripartite alliance is solidifying between Russia, Iran and Turkey. Moscow’s manoeuvres are an exercise in grandstanding, albeit one that gives Russia the opportunity to flex its media, diplomatic, political and even military might.

Russia and Iran are exploiting the disarray in Turkey, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s focus on getting his own house in order, to push Ankara into accepting a resolution in Syria that keeps Al-Assad in place. In exchange they will act to stop the Kurdish advance in northern Syria. Several signs point in this direction: Syrian regime air strikes against the Kurds; Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s latest speech in which he refrained from attacking Turkey, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif’s conciliatory treatment of Erdogan during the Turkish president’s recent visit to Ankara. Yet none of these inducements is likely to carry much weight in Ankara. Turkey is well aware that Russia and Iran cannot halt Kurdish expansion in Syria as long as the US continues to provide the Kurds with cover.

“It’s a mistake to see current Turkish-Russian-Iranian understandings as a new alliance against the US,” says Khaled Al-Ayoubi, a dissident Syrian diplomat based in London. “These understandings are based on interests that have been imposed by necessity, a result of flailing policies on the part of the Barack Obama administration which have harmed Washington’s allies. Every one of Turkey’s understandings with Russia and Iran will be cast aside if the new US president decides to remove Al-Assad and place relations with Turkey back on their proper footing.”

“What is happening between Turkey, Russia and Iran should not be seen as an alliance,” insists Mohamed Sabra, a member of the Syrian opposition negotiating delegation and head of the Republican Party. “It’s a meeting of opposites. All three states are facing US pressure. Russia, which NATO is trying to hem in from all sides, has come to view Turkey as an important opening in the south through which it can break NATO’s stranglehold. Turkey is coming under US pressure and fears Washington’s support for separatist Kurds in Syria. We are not seeing a strategic alliance but cards being played by each state to improve its position with the US and show that it, too, can exercise pressure. Any coordination will collapse as soon as Washington’s policy on regional issues shifts.”

Syrian dissident Mokhlis Al-Khatib agrees.

“The objective of this unusual alliance could be to challenge Obama before he leaves office but as an alliance to stand up to US policies in the longer term, that’s wholly unlikely. The most obvious aim seems to be an attempt to build a relationship with the new US president on different foundations than the relationship with Obama who promised the American public that he would not get the US military involved in any more wars and has kept that promise.”

Nor do quick-fire regional developments and Russia’s show of force indicate an impending resolution of the Syrian crisis. Instead, they show that the US is in no hurry. Washington wants to postpone the Syrian issue until after the elections, which means maintaining the current balance of power for the next six months. Other players may flex their muscles and spin new alliances but they will be incapable of changing the situation on the ground.

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