This article was published in Ahval News on April 28, 2018.
Russian and Iranian misgivings about Turkey’s intentions in Syria
Turkey’s military operation in the Syrian province of Afrin was not well received by Iran. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, immediately after the operation was launched, said that “a military intervention should be based on the authorisation of the host country and its people” and wished that the operation will end at the earliest time.
News leaked to the media that following the trilateral summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran, held on April 4 in Ankara, that Rouhani raised the same concern during the summit.
A similar statement came from the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on April 11 where he said: “Since Afrin is now cleared from the terrorists, it is only natural that Turkey should hand over the city to the Syrian authorities”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not wait long to respond: “We will hand over Afrin to the people of Afrin. But the timing of it will be determined buy us, not by Lavrov”.
Time will show whether this statement is the tip of the iceberg which members of the Astana trio may hit sometime in the future.
The Afrin operation is the second concrete step by Turkey, following the operation ‘Euphrates Shield’, to dismantle the Kurdish belt emerging in the south of Turkey along the border with Syria.
Russia’s acquiescence to open the Syrian airspace over Afrin was essential to Turkey’s carrying out the military operation. Russia did so in order to maintain the upward trend in its relations with Turkey and because it is aware of the importance of both positive and negative roles that Turkey may play in the Syrian crisis. Turkey is a NATO country. The important NATO airbase in Incirlik, Adana, is within a range of minutes to the Syrian border.
In the long-term, Russia will use Syria as a foothold for consolidating its presence in the Middle East to counter-balance the American presence in the region. The revival of Turkey-Syria relations will therefore become an asset while the continuation of Turkey’s poor relations with Syria will be a headache for Russia.
The strong emphasis of the three leaders in the Ankara summit on the territorial integrity of Syria was probably incorporated in the final communique with a view to committing Turkey to withdraw from Syria when the time comes. Turkey has never mentioned that it will not withdraw from Syria, neither did it say when it will withdraw. Russia and Iran – in addition to the international community- wish for Turkey not to drag its feet for too long.
The Syrian Kurds are likely to remain an important issue between Turkey, the US, Syria, Russia and Iran. They are trained and equipped by the US, which will use them in the future as a leverage for its own purposes in Syria. Despite the fact that Russia is also an important supporter of the Kurdish cause, the role that the Kurds will play in the future in Russia-Syria relations is not yet clear. Neither is the role that they will play in Turkey-Syria relations.
Cooperation between Turkey and Syria to transform the Kurdish issue into a positive element will serve the national interests of both of them. It will have positive impacts on Russia and Iran as well, but the atmosphere does not seem to be conducive to it at present moment.
Briefly, Russia may have misgivings about cooperation with Turkey, but the potential in such cooperation is high.
Iran has even more misgivings than Russia about Turkey’s military actions in Syria. To voice Iran’s discontent, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, on Feb. 5, said: “Turkey must stop its military offensive and respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
However, the Turkey-Iran disagreement on Afrin is not big enough to prevent cooperation between them. Their disagreement on the future of the Syrian regime is bigger and it remains to be seen how it will reflect on their bilateral relations.
Furthermore, Iran also needs friends in the region in the face of strong hostility from the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Turkey may become an ally in areas where they maintain overlapping interests. Therefore, Turkey and Iran may continue to cooperate despite some disturbances in their relationship from time to time.