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Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani talk Syria

Last Wednesday, April 4, the Iranian, Russian and Turkish presidents met in Ankara, the Turkish capital, for a high-level meeting in which they discussed the future of Syria. This was the second such meeting in recent months. The three leaders discussed ways in which to accelerate the stabilization of Syria and cement their influence in the country. They have announced cooperation on reconstruction and aid, with Russia and Turkey planning to build a hospital in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. The three countries further highlighted their devotion to protecting Syria’s territorial integrity, although they plan to maintain military presence in Syria (Euronews, “Iran, Turkey and Russia meet for Syria summit,” 04.04.2018).

The three countries are working together despite clashing views of the conflict in Syria. While Russia and Iran support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey supports some rebel groups. Opposition to the United States’ foreign policy is the only common thread uniting the leaders (The Washington Post, “Iran, Russia and Turkey plan Syria’s future as Trump seeks an exit,” 04.04.2018).

However, Moscow, Tehran and Ankara’s interests continue to diverge on the battlefield. By entering the Syrian civil war, Russia has managed to change the entire geopolitical situation. Assad’s regime rallied itself from almost losing the war to becoming the winner of one of the most bloody conflicts of our time, with its airstrikes on rebel targets in key urban areas. Russia’s backing of the regime is not due to any special sympathy for Assad’s military-intelligence-business oligarchy, but rather to a desire to consolidate its geo-strategic position regionally and globally (BBC, “Why does Russia support Syria and President Assad?,” 04.11.2017).

Iran is supporting the Assad regime in order to gain back an ally against its regional rivals, Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, on a larger scale, the rapid escalation of the Syrian war into a civil conflict has enabled Iran to come closer to reaching its historic goal, to extend the so-called Shiite crescent, which extends from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to the Mediterranean. This, of course, is possible only in the context of the weakening of the role of the United States in the region (DW, “Syria conflict: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want?,” 12.21.2017).

Turkey has long been the main opponent of Assad and a supporter of at least three different rebel groups. However, after the unsuccessful military coup in Turkey in July 2016, which was an attempt to remove Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Erdogan changed his position on Syria.

It was the Russian intelligence community that warned Erdogan about the possible coup. Erdogan initially apologized to Russia for hijacking Russian aircrafts on the Syrian-Turkish border and visited President Putin days later in St. Petersburg. The first major Turkish operation in Syria was an attack on Syrian Kurds, who controlled a large part of Syrian territories. Iran, for example, still demands that Kurdish territories be returned to the control of Damascus (Businessinsider, “Russia may be preparing a ‘long-term, game-changing move’ with Turkey,” 08.05.2016).

Amidst this coalition-building, with the objective of distancing the United States diplomatically from Syria, President Trump announced the country’s withdrawal from Syria. The Pentagon pushed back strongly against the announcement, and while Trump walked back on his earlier announcement, his policy regarding Syria remains unclear. The rise of the new coalition may point to the decline of U.S. power in the region.

—Marusa Rus, Reporter

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