Russian-Turkish-Iranian Cross-Purposes on Syria’s Future

On August 24, the United Nations-sponsored Syrian Constitutional Committee meetings reconvened in Geneva. UN Envoy Geir Peterson, the chair of the meeting, declared that the purpose of the talks was to “establish a foundational act, a social contract for Syrians.” But he had earlier tempered these words by noting that “this is about the beginning, about a long and cumbersome process.” His prudence was well placed since the real locus of negotiating is in Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran. Led by Russia under the umbrella of the Astana, Kazakhstan, process that began in January 2017, this triple entente has yet to secure control over some 20 percent of Syria’s northwest and northeast. Nevertheless, it has accomplished its main mission of saving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and it now seems well positioned to impose its will on the Geneva track that began in 2012, rather than acquiesce to the push and pull of genuine negotiations. And as it turned out, the last round in Geneva came to naught, except for Pedersen’s wish to meet in the future.

Still, the three partners face numerous obstacles, including an armed opposition that retains a real capacity to draw blood. Most crucially, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have different long-term strategic goals, particularly regarding Assad’s ultimate political future as well as that of his domestic allies. Having played a decisive military role in Syria and the creation of the Astana path, Russia’s preference is to treat Turkey and Iran as junior partners. But apart from their own significant differences on Syria, Ankara and Tehran are not inclined toward complying with Moscow’s wishes. Thus the challenge facing the three partners is how to manage these tensions so that they can maximize their diplomatic leverage if and when the wobbly international effort to define Syria’s post conflict political future gains real momentum.

The United States is a side player in this process and everyone, including the US representatives at Geneva James Jeffrey and Joel Rayburn, seems to know this. Washington has had some success using sanctions against Damascus and Tehran. Yet it lacks the military capacity and political will to shape events. Simultaneously, Israel has used its military assets to impose real costs on Iran and Assad’s regime while avoiding getting drawn into a major military conflict. With the COVID-19 crisis still raging and Lebanese Hezbollah struggling on the domestic front, the Astana three will probably maintain enough unity to block any diplomatic moves on Syria that threaten their interests. This will be enough to ensure that the Geneva talks go nowhere fast.

The Astana Process vs. the Syrian Constitutional Committee

Russia, Turkey, and Iran wasted no time in exploiting Geneva. One short day after the Constitutional Committee Drafting Commission’s (CCDC) talks began, their representatives held what in the words of one pro-Iranian online publication was “trilateral talks…on the margins” of the Geneva meeting. But this was no marginal event. As far back as March 2020, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif had insisted that “We are convinced that today the only mechanism that considerably helped to… make a step towards stability has become the Astana process.”

Underscoring this point, in their August 25 statement, the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian representatives “reaffirmed” their “readiness to support the committee’s work” while also asserting the CCDC was “created as a result of the decisive contribution of the Astana guarantors and in furtherance of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi.” Endorsed by the United Nations but convened and stage-managed by Moscow, the Sochi talks did not provide anything close to the CCDC’s more inclusive negotiating framework. Thus it took no small amount of hubris to claim that the CCDC’s work grew out of the Sochi “dialogue.” The joint statement also asserted the “determination” of Russia, Turkey, and Iran to “hold the next International Meeting on Syria in the Astana format.” In short, Moscow and its two partners have clearly signaled their intention to control any negotiations over Syria’s future.

Enduring Strategic Divergences on Syria

Moscow created the Astana process in 2017 not only to provide a mechanism to wield its power, but also to manage its relations with its two junior partners. Needless to say, Turkey and Iran accepted that with different levels of enthusiasm because of their clear differences with Moscow. These differences have crystalized around two key questions, the territorial future of the Syrian state, and the political arrangements that would presumably be created to oversee Syria’s reconstruction. While Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran have repeatedly (if not dubiously) proclaimed their commitment to the principles of full Syrian state sovereignty and unity, they do not agree on the key question of the political future of Assad and his regime.

Moscow created the Astana process in 2017 not only to provide a mechanism to wield its power, but also to manage its relations with its two junior partners.

Iran’s leaders are united in their conviction that no effort to rebuild Syria will work without Assad (and by implication, his readiness to use force). Thus, Tehran believes that whatever political process emerges, it must include Assad and his allies. Moreover, given the nearly existential role that the Syrian-Iranian alliance plays in its security policy, Tehran wants to retain as much of a political and military footprint in Syria as the region (and Moscow) will bear. By contrast, Turkey envisions a political map that will constrain the ability of Kurdish forces to operate in Syria while giving opposition groups from the Sunni community the chance to gain power via elections. To be sure, Ankara presumes, perhaps incorrectly, that said elections will not have significant pockets of support for the Syrian president.

Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s over hostility toward Assad, following Moscow’s 2015 military intervention in Syria and its subsequent creation of the Astana process, Ankara has muted its call for Assad’s removal to avoid antagonizing Russia and Iran. But it appears that Ankara still believes that a restructuring of Syria’s politics will ultimately require Assad and his allies to cede power. This objective does not sit well in Tehran, which has naturally expressed its concerns about the presence of the Turkish military on Syrian soil.

As for Moscow, its overriding goal is to protect its vital military and diplomatic alliance with Syria; thus it has continued to back Assad. But it remains unclear about the question of his political survival. Indeed, in spring 2020, Moscow allowed the Russian semi-official press to assail Assad in unusually unambiguous terms. Whether such criticism suggests a real change toward Assad or a mere tactical maneuver to push Assad to evince some flexibility in the negotiations is a question that only Russian President Vladimir Putin can answer. Luckily for the latter, and unluckily for many others, Russia has thus far retained the military means––and diplomatic space––to sustain a useful measure of strategic ambiguity.

Russian-Turkish-Iranian Frictions Come to the Fore

Past events on Syria’s various battlefields and in the wider regional and global arenas have complicated the efforts of Russia, Turkey, and Iran to keep their divergent if often obscured strategic agendas from breaking out in open conflict. Russia’s February 28, 2020 air attack along the border of the northwestern Idlib province that killed some 33 Turkish troops underscored Moscow’s readiness to punish Ankara for actions it deemed threatening to its basic interests. In that case, Turkey’s bid to use force to stop Assad’s military offensive against armed Islamist factions exposed a basic strategic divide: between Russia’s resolve to help Assad destroy another bastion of armed opposition and Turkey’s quest to tighten the noose around Assad’s regime by supporting the Islamist opposition.

These bloody events seemed to confirm Erdogan’s assertion––made three weeks before Russia’s attack––that Astana had, in his words, “crumbled.” The March 4 Russian-Turkish Idlib ceasefire agreement––which was designed to prevent another Turkish-Russian clash—was forged outside the Astana process. Nevertheless, the agreement telegraphed Moscow’s resolve to manage its relations with Turkey and Iran in ways that would minimize conflict between the Astana partners. But over the past few months these tensions have continued just beneath the surface of the tripartite entente.

Internal Tensions in Syria

Domestic tensions in Syria regarding Iran are not new. One source is reportedly rooted within Syria’s ruling elite. Indeed, in July 2018, al-Watan newspaper, owned by Assad’s millionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, published an article that assailed Iran’s motives in Syria. In spring 2020, this criticism was directed tangentially by Makhlouf himself at Assad when he assailed the security forces for attacking the “people’s freedoms.”

These criticisms were echoed in a report issued by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official think tank. Beyond noting the crippling effect of US sanctions on Syria, the report called for the “development of a political system” in Syria “that will rest on a truly inclusive approach and international consent.” If the purpose of similar statements coming from other Russian linked bodies was to signal Moscow’s growing impatience with Assad, they seemed to have only galvanized his domestic supporters, including his youngest brother, Maher al-Assad. A staunch defender of the alliance with Iran and Commander of the 4th Armored Division, Maher has also signaled his disdain for Russia and in fact was reported in June 2020 to have refused Russian orders to remove checkpoints controlled by his troops. These frictions have surely complicated Bashar’s efforts to maintain his alliance with both Moscow and Tehran.

Maher has also signaled his disdain for Russia and in fact was reported in June 2020 to have refused Russian orders to remove checkpoints controlled by his troops.

Iranian-Turkish Tensions

Iran appears to view Turkey’s military incursion into Idlib province––along with the continuing presence in that area of Sunni jihadist groups––as a significant threat to its interests. Iranian Chief of Staff Mohammed Bagheri signaled as much in July, when he urged Ankara to pursue its security objective not by occupying Syrian territory or using force, but rather through “negotiation and understanding with Syria.” Pointedly he complained that “Turkey is a little late implementing its commitment to Astana understanding to get terrorist groups out of Syria.”

Iran’s pique was displayed in even sharper terms in the Iranian government-controlled web page Alwaght. The “Turkish army,” it argued, has “entered the northern regions of Syria and…has…occupied these areas.” The actions “of the Turkish government,” it added, have violated “the national sovereignty of an independent country. Turkey’s presence in northern Syria will undoubtedly play a major role in the failure of the Syrian peace and constitutional negotiations.” Published during the August 2020 Geneva meeting, the report suggested that Tehran believes that those talks cannot succeed unless Turkey allows Assad’s forces to complete their mission in Idlib province. But this position will surely not budge Erdogan, who declared only weeks before the Geneva talks that Turkey would remain in Syria “until the Syrian people are free.”

Muddling Through

These tensions will probably increase the closer the international community gets to advancing an authoritative dialogue on the ultimate political future of Syria. Given that this moment still seems far away, the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian short and medium tactical interests require muddling through. Thus it is in their common interest to sustain as much cooperation as possible while recognizing––and tolerating––the efforts of their distrustful partners to maximize their own geo-strategic interests and priorities.

Tensions will probably increase the closer the international community gets to advancing an authoritative dialogue on the ultimate political future of Syria. Given that this moment still seems far away, the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian short and medium tactical interests require muddling through.

The July 8 Iranian-Syrian agreement to strengthen military cooperation is a good case in point. Struck just one week after Erdogan, Putin, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held a video conference to renew the work of the Astana process and prepare for the August Geneva conference, that agreement included plans to strengthen Syrian air defenses by providing Iran’s Bavar-373 missile system to Damascus. The deal compensates for the inconvenient fact that thus far, Moscow has apparently not allowed its S-300 missile system that has been deployed in Syria to become fully operational. This has hindered Syria’s ability to defend against Israeli attacks, a state of affairs that Iran and Syria suspect Moscow prefers in order to prevent a wider Syrian-Iranian-Israeli conflict. For its part, Iran probably sees the Iranian missile system as a necessary deterrent whose provision also signals Russia that it can play with Syria the game of strategic “substitution” if necessary.

US Options are Limited

Over the last few years, American options in Syria have been rather limited. But while James Jeffrey—the administration’s representative at the Geneva talks—has assailed Moscow for backing Assad, he also has insisted that it “has never been our goal” to get Russia out of Syria…that’s not our policy.”

This flash of real politic underscores the fact that the administration has no cogent approach to the Middle East’s intersecting conflicts. What is in fact urgently needed is a comprehensive approach and perspective that place the Syrian conflict in a wider strategic lens. Given the absence of such an approach and perspective in the current administration and the difficulties that its successor will face in forging a more coherent Middle East policy, Putin will remain in the driver’s seat as Turkey and Iran help him in steering Syria’s future.