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New Geopolitics in the Middle East?

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This article was originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) on 27 November 2017.

The possible creation of a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East may have snuck under the radar this holiday weekend. The continuing spectacle of the investigations into Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 Election and the continued naming and shaming of corporate leaders and politicians involved in sexual harassment (as well as Thanksgiving), may have overshadowed the summit in Sochi between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited President Putin in the same city (and thanked him for “saving Syria”).

The three presidents announced the winding down of the radical Islamist threat in Syria and the continued cooperation of their three states until “the final defeat” of the Islamic State and the al-Nusra front. More significantly, they announced the convening of a Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in the near future, aimed at a “political solution to the crisis through a comprehensive, free, fair and transparent Syrian-Syrian process, that leads to a draft constitution with the support of Syrians and free and fair elections with participation of all people in Syria, under the proper supervision of the United Nations” (not a little ironic, considering the questionable democratic bona fides of the three regimes) and stressed their continued joint involvement in rebuilding Syria. According to the Russian press, Putin called President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, President Abd el-Fatah a-Sisi of Egypt, and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and informed them of the details of the summit.

The chiefs of staff of the three states’ militaries met in Sochi as well just before the summit: they discussed the current situation in Syria, outlined further steps to be taken in order to “destroy terrorist groups, ensure security in the de-escalation zones, and to pave the way for political settlement of the conflict.” Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov noted that “the active phase of the military operation in Syria is nearing its completion … Although some issues are yet to be addressed, this stage is coming to its logical end.”

The EU noted “ … the statement of the three Astana guarantors in Sochi [in addition to the agreement of the Syrian opposition on the composition of its delegation to the Geneva talks slated to start November 28] … allows us to now look forward to the next round in Geneva, with the strong hope that the way is now paved for concrete decisions between the Syrian parties including on transitional governance, a constitutional process and UN-supervised free and fair elections.” The Astana process launched by the three powers last year (and largely viewed in the West as a marginal talking shop) is now poised to dovetail with the stalled U.N.-led Geneva process and may, with the heft of the three international players who have put the most skin in the game on the battlefield behind it, open the way to a resolution of sorts to the Syrian crisis.

This is only the formal pinnacle of cooperation which has been developing between Russia and Iran since the beginning of Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, and between Moscow and Ankara since June 2016, after Turkish President Erdogan apologized for the November 2015 downing of a Russian combat jet by Turkey, which had led to a crisis in bilateral relations. Russia and Iran have been closely cooperating, strategically, politically, and operationally to first stabilize the Syrian regime and its forces, and then to assist them in advancing towards victory.

The party which seems to have undergone the most serious change in policy, and has come the farthest to the current three-way cooperation, is Turkey. In the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Erdogan’s government was firmly supportive of the Syrian opposition and condemnatory of Assad’s regime – it even hosted the MOM, the Northern military operations center, which coordinated the efforts of several regional and international powers active in Syria. Turkey’s position on the conflict has evolved, as:

  • the civil war morphed into a parallel war between the regime and foreign powers (including Russia and the U.S.) against the Islamic State, which has carried out a bloody terror war against targets inside Turkey;
  • the Russian intervention reversed the tide and brought the Assad regime close to victory;
  • Kurdish groups – supported by the U.S. – gained more prominence and power as the most effective Syrian force against the Islamic State, raising latent fears in Turkey of possible Kurdish irredentism (which were only fanned by the recent aborted moves by the Iraqi Kurds towards independence).

Turkey’s ire at the United States after the April 2016 coup attempt, which Turkish officials have accused the U.S. of abetting, and the U.S. refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, led them to the door of Putin, for whose authoritarianism President Erdogan seems to also feel a kinship. Turkey’s understanding that in the current populist atmosphere in Europe – which has found anti-Islamic and anti-Turkish expressions – has buried their forlorn hopes for accession to the EU, may also have contributed. Turkey is becoming less and less an integral and dependable part of NATO. The Turkish media is rife with reports of intense Turkish-Russian cooperation in the defense industry/security field (including the possible sale of Russian S-400 air defense systems, and construction of a Russian nuclear reactor in Turkey). As Metin Gurcan notes in Al-Monitor, “this year, 66.5% [of [Turkish poll respondents] said the United States is the worst threat to Turkey, up from 44.1% a year before. Last year, only 14.8% thought that strategic cooperation with Russia could be an alternative to EU membership. This year, that figure reached 27.6%.”

Turkey and Iran share a common interest in calming Kurdish national fervor, which will be promoted by an end to the civil war in Syria – whether negotiated or compelled – and a return to more centralized rule, combined with the developments in Iraqi Kurdistan. To contain Kurdish ambitions, Turkey also needs to cooperate with the other countries perceiving a threat from their direction: Assad’s Syria – the key to which is in Russian and Iranian hands – and Iranian-influenced, Shiite-dominated Iraq. The Turkish daily Hurriyet reported in the wake of the summit that President Erdogan ruled out any place for the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in the Sochi conference; he added that he believes that Putin and Assad share this view.

Iranian newspapers and news sites described the Sochi meeting as a process leading to a “new Middle East.” The reformist Shargh daily wrote, “this summit indicates that the unity among Iran, Russia and Turkey is more prominent than in the past and these countries are engaged in a joint road map that is designed for Syria, and has been pursued in various summits. … Today, Iran, Turkey and Russia are drawing a road map for the new Middle East.”

Saudi Arabia hosted, contemporaneously with the Sochi summit, a meeting of Syrian opposition groups, aimed at forming a united opposition delegation for the Geneva talks. It is not clear how this move meshes with the Russian game plan, or if it runs parallel or even counter to it. In any case, Saudi Arabia may well have contributed to the new regional Great Entente. Saudi Arabia’s overstretched attempt at playing regional architect – and neighborhood bully – is not showing great results, apart from puffing up Iran’s threat to the region and pushing the two non-Arab Muslim powers even closer together. Riyadh is bogged down in Yemen, and absorbing greater and greater international criticism for its role in the humanitarian crisis unfolding there. Its economic war on Qatar – seen as an Iranian ally – has not brought it to heel, but has pushed it even closer economically and strategically to Turkey, which has posted military forces in the peninsular emirate as a deterrent. In addition, its apparent attempt to reengineer Lebanese politics is shaping up to have been “a bridge too far.” The Saudis have neither the strategic experience and acumen nor the military muscle to succeed in the role that has been thrust on them by the lack of American leadership in the region. The promising “moderate Sunni camp,” led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Jordan, which countered the pro-Assad camp (the regime, Iran, and Hezbollah) at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, is in tatters in the wake of the Russian intervention and the regional reshuffle it put into play.

The key to understanding both the strategic dynamics that led to the Moscow-Ankara-Teheran condominium, and to its possible future significance, is the perceived absence and irrelevance of the West in the Middle East. This is due in a large part to its failure, and specifically that of the United States under Presidents Obama and Trump, to effectively address the crisis in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Iran’s ally and creation, Hezbollah (aided by Iraqi Shia militias), stepped in and turned the tide; Turkey decided to go with the devil it knows (Assad) rather than the anarchic and – for it – even more destabilizing alternatives, to block the Kurds, and to join the winning team. The rest of the world (Israel is a clear exception), including the United States – whose President spoke with Putin for over an hour, “mostly about Syria,” according to Administration officials, two days before the Sochi summit, and seems to have promised President Erdogan in a phone call Friday that military aid to the YPG Kurdish militia will cease – and the EU, are apparently just happy someone (else) is doing the work.

Russia is an important enough player (and has enough other important interests, such as high oil prices and arms sales), that its bloc with Iran and Turkey on Syria does not exclude ties with other players on other issues: Saudi Arabia and OPEC on oil prices, Egypt on arms (look for Cairo’s moving closer to Moscow after the most recent outrage in Sinai) and Israel on de-confliction, as well as containing, and perhaps messaging Iran. Putin will be on his way to winding down the Russian military operation in Syria, and show the Russian public his preeminence as a global leader, before he runs for his next presidential term in March 2018. The Sochi process may also help Iran’s normalization, despite Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh’s best efforts.

This attempt to solve the Syrian morass may well go the way of its predecessors. But it seems to bear greater potential than most, both because the regime seems to be close to victory over both the Islamic State and its other opposition, and because the three heavyweights of the Middle East’s northern tier have lined up behind it: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In any case the new tripartite pact is likely to be able to parley their success into political capital and power in the region, as those who are willing not only to talk but to act decisively, as well to promote Putin as the “go-to” man for regional problems (perhaps outside the Middle East as well).


About the Authors

Joshua Krasna is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East.

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