Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia's President Vladimir Putin hold a joint press conference during a tripartite summit on Syria, in Ankara, on April 4, 2018
Long before taking the form of modern nation-states, Iran, Russia, and Turkey had a long imperial history. All the three countries have in some periods experienced levels of Western influence, but none has been completely gone under the domination of the west and as such, the West has never recognized them as equal actors and independent centers of power in the international arena. During the Second World War, Turkey adopted a neutral stance; a position which was welcomed mostly by Germany and regarded as an unfavorable move by the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Turkey defined itself as part of the Western bloc and a member of NATO, so that it actually became one of the countries at the first line of anti-Soviet front. Therefore, it could be said that the history of Russia/Soviet Union-Turkey relations presents us a kind of uneasy, sometimes unfriendly picture.
The history of Iran-Turkey relations however has been a bit different. Although the two Persian and Ottoman empires had a 150-year history of hostility, they later managed to replace the hostilities with a desire to pursue common goals and interests; a trend, which has continued over time, and despite the uneasy nature of bilateral relations at some periods, the two sides have been successful in avoiding any kind of confrontation. In the same vein, Iran-Russia relationship has always been a topic of hot debates, with bitter history of Tsarist Russia’s actions against Iran and a bilateral mistrust overshadowing the relations.
However, when it comes to the current state of relations between the three, it seems that despite the unstable and sometimes tension-prone nature of their interactions regarding the Syrian crisis, they have reached a point in which a real cooperation has been shaped among them, affecting the very nature of their relationship. Nonetheless, this does not mean that all the differences and difficulties have been resolved, so, the real future of their trilateral cooperative framework depends heavily on the extent to which they will be able to reach a common understanding on the issues, which are deemed vital for the three nations alike.
Three Phases of the Trilateral Interactions
The interactions between Tehran, Ankara, and Moscow on the Syrian issue could be categorized in three distinct phases: the beginning of the crisis, the escalation of the crisis and the ebb of the crisis (post-Daesh period). In the first phase, the crisis began in Syria and the three countries subsequently defined their strategy on what role they were going to play in Syria. At this stage, which lasted for about one year, each of the three actors was mostly obsessed with developing its own strategy and evaluating the strategies of its partners or rivals. As a result, the initial alignment of competing actors took shape.
In the escalation phase, all the three actors, taking into account the strategies developed by
their own and the others, intensified their diplomatic as well as operational activities in order to advance their own goals and proprieties, prevent the collapse of the balance of power and stop the rivals in Syria. This trend caused serious challenges between Iran, Turkey, and Russia, with the downing of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Turkey on Nov. 24, 2015 as its pick. The event in fact led Ankara and Moscow to the verge of a direct confrontation. This second phase began from 2013 continued to mid-2016, when on the one hand, a coup attempt happened in Turkey and on the other, signs of the defeat of Daesh began to emerge. The main feature of this phase was the implementation and confrontation of strategies, which led to the escalation of crisis in Turkey’s relations with Iran and Russia.
Finally, in the third phase, the crisis in the three countries’ relations began to recede. The main feature of this phase could be named as moderating and coordinating the strategies, which led three countries toward cooperation and coordination. The most important determinants of such a development included the failed coup in Turkey and the subsequent deterioration of Ankara-Washington relations, the defeats and gradual retreats of Daesh, the Syrian Army’s success in retaking a vast part of the country’s territory from the rebels, terrorist group’s PKK’s Syrian extension PYD’s advances in northern Syria, and the increasingly confrontational nature of US policies in Syria against all the three actors. Therefore, these elements were crucial in transforming the trilateral relations to the form, which is currently visible to us.
Main Issues Affecting the Trilateral Interactions Regarding Syria
Over the past several years – indeed since the beginning of the Syrian crisis – three vital issues have been affecting Iran-Russia-Turkey interactions regarding the Syrian issue, causing various fluctuations in their relations in form of cooperation or rivalry. These three issues include the Kurdish problem, different Syrian groups supported by each side, and the future of Syrian government. If managed in a proper way, these issues could effectively empower the Russian-Iranian-Turkish triangle; otherwise, they would act as negative factors in their relationship.
The Kurdish Problem
The issue of Syrian Kurdish groups, especially the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is currently regarded as the main priority of Turkey’s foreign policy in Syria, so that it led to Ankara’s military operation in northern Syria within the framework of the Operation Olive Branch. The operation is said to have Moscow and Tehran’s green light, at least tacitly. Given the United States’ special view toward the Syrian Kurds as one its allies in the war-torn country, backing them in the context of its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish issue in Syria has become even of a more importance for Turkey. In this vein, Turkey has been trying to compel Iran and Russia to recognize its security considerations in northern Syria and this very issue could act as a factor enhancing their cooperation. However, some delicate issues such as the possibility of a direct clash between Turkey and the Syrian army in northern areas have the potential to once again sour Ankara’s ties with the other two actors.
The future of Assad and the Syrian Government
There is no doubt that over the past seven years, the future of Bashar al-Assad and the Syriangovernment has been the main point of disagreement between Turkey on the one hand, Iran, and Russia on the other. Although Ankara has recently softened its stance regarding Assad, it still insists on the necessity of his removal from power at some point in the future. However, Iran and Russia has the opposite view, saying that the future of Assad should only be decided through a nation-wide election in Syria. It seems that just in the case of a compromise between the three sides on this basic issue there is the possibility of a long-term, effective regional cooperation among them. Otherwise, there is little hope that their interactions could be pursued at the strategic level.
Different Supported Groups
Another controversial issue in the relations between Iran, Turkey, and Russia on Syria is the different types of Syrian groups supported by each side. Here, the approaches of Iran and Turkey have been in sharp contrast. Iran defines the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as Ahrar al-Sham as terrorist groups, while Turkey considers them to be among the moderate Syrian opposition. On the other hand, Ankara has repeatedly called for the cessation of activities of the pro-Iran groups in Syria, especially Hezbollah. Meanwhile, despite having some differences on this case with Turkey, Russia has represented a more flexible, pragmatic stance, trying at the same time to act as a kind of mediator between Iran and Turkey in this regard. It seems that Moscow’s efforts have paid off, at least for now, as the differences on this issue has not so far stopped Iran and Turkey from pursuing joint political efforts, either in the format of Astana peace talks or the other frameworks such as Syria’s national congress in Sochi.
What to Expect for the Future?
Considering all the above-mentioned factors, it could be said that although there has been serious differences between Iran, Russia and Turkey regarding Syria, the relative convergence between their main priorities has led them to move forward on their path of cooperation. However, it is still a matter of uncertainty at what level their cooperation could be pursued. So far, it could be said that interactions between the three actors have mostly had tactical and short-term nature, based on their common understanding of the threats they are currently facing. However, clear definition of the three parties’ interests, priorities, considerations, and entering serious negotiations over them could provide an opportunity for their cooperation to be enhanced to the strategic level.
In this vein, the reconstruction of Syria could be a testing ground for the future of tripartite interactions. Although all the three parties have expressed readiness to play role in Syria’s reconstruction, Damascus has been tended more toward Iran and Russia to do so. However, it seems that if Ankara agrees to soften its stance regarding the Syrian government and at the same time, the other two actors consider a meaningful share for Ankara in the reconstruction work, this could provide a basis for an upgraded cooperation between the three in Syria.
Nonetheless, at the current situation and before entering the post-war period, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity, fighting the terrorist groups and preventing further US influence in Syria – especially through its support for PYD/YPG– seem to be the basic issues of common interests between Iran and Russia, based on which the continuation of a meaningful level of coordination between them in Syria is more or less guaranteed.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
Mostafa Najafi, a research fellow at Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, is the Turkey analyst.
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