Russian President Vladimir Putin will be hosting his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani, at a trilateral summit Nov. 22 in Sochi, to discuss Syria and regional developments. Prior to the summit, the three countries held a preparatory meeting with experts in Tehran, followed by another meeting on the ministerial level in Turkey’s Antalya.
At the conclusion of the Antalya meeting Nov. 19, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seemed very optimistic, and he was quoted as saying that “the meeting was useful” and the parties to the talks "agreed on all key issues." Yet Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acted in a discreet manner when the former talked about bridging the gaps between the three parties and the latter did not disclose much.
Although these meetings can be seen as a sign of a growing cooperation between the three parties, they can also be interpreted as a reflection of distrust between them. When it comes to Russia’s agenda in Syria, both Ankara and Tehran have their own fears as they are concerned that Moscow might exploit them at some point to achieve its own goals.
Over the last 11 months, the three countries managed to work tactically on selective matters in order to maximize their gains in the short term in Syria. However, as the battle against the Islamic State (IS) is coming to an end and the topics on which they can agree shrink, each party fears that Russia will conclude side agreements at their own expense, hence the growing distrust between the three players.
For Turkey, the issue of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People's Protection Units (YPG) is a priority right now. In a Daily Sabah column, Turkey's presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin summed up his country’s six grand goals in Syria, reiterating that “the question of the PYD-YPG remains a red line for Turkey.”
Russia’s position on this matter is vague at best when it comes to Ankara’s crucial interests, but pro-Kurdish when it comes to Moscow’s own interests. In a shattered region where failed states are flourishing, minorities tend to be more valuable for foreign powers. While Russia clearly doesn't want to leave the Kurds to the United States, it also wants to use them to gain influence and leverage when needed, whether it be against Turkey, Iran or even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In January, Russia presented a draft constitution for the new Syria. The draft constitution guarantees the Kurds inflated powers far greater than their size to the extent that even the Assad regime had refused them. Apparently, Moscow did not consult with Ankara on this matter despite the fact that both are supposed to be coordinating the Astana platform.
Last month, Putin expressed the will to host the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi. Moscow, which does not list the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PYD and the YPG as terrorist organizations, invited the PYD, causing a backlash after Turkey and the Syrian opposition objected.
Again, it was obvious that Moscow had not coordinated this step with Ankara. Most importantly, by doing this Russia appeared to be ignoring an already well-known Turkish red line, thus raising questions in Ankara about its real intentions.
"Ankara is well aware that it needs to cooperate with Russia to have a seat around the table about Syria’s future, while Moscow also needs Ankara’s support to realize Russia’s own geopolitical aims in Syria and the Middle East region in general.”
Explaining this situation, Kerim Has, a lecturer at Moscow State University, told Al-Monitor, “Turkish-Russian cooperation is not a product of strategic planning. Ankara is well aware that it needs to cooperate with Russia to have a seat around the table about Syria’s future, while Moscow also needs Ankara’s support to realize Russia’s own geopolitical aims in Syria and the Middle East region in general.”
He added, “There are a lot of diverging issues between Turkey and Russia, but the Kurdish PYD issue is the most critical one right now. Neither Ankara nor Moscow trusts each other as there is an inevitable partnership based on selective cooperation, and this is why the relations between the two countries are very fragile now."
Last week, Putin and US President Donald Trump issued a joint statement stressing that there is no military solution for the conflict in Syria, and there is a need to support the UN-backed Geneva political process. One day later, reports emerged citing a bilateral agreement between Russia and the United States on a cease-fire deal in southern Syria that would include the expulsion of the Iranian-backed militias from the border areas in the Golan Heights.
Russia immediately denied the existence of such a deal, and Lavrov maintained that Moscow made no such pledges to ensure the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria. Commenting on the issue, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi responded, “Iran has been fully informed by the Russians on the cease-fire agreement. No agreement would be successful without taking the realities on the ground into account.”
The situation on the ground suggests that Iran has the biggest non-regular army in Syria, which consists of tens of thousands of Shiite militia fighters. Many regional and international players would like to see those militias leave Syria. The eroding and defeat of IS is shifting the focus again to pro-Iran militias, which makes Tehran very anxious about its situation in Syria.
Contrary to Ghassemi’s calm response, a well-informed source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “[Iran] is never comfortable whenever Russia sits with the United States, Israel or Turkey. [Tehran] does not take what the Kremlin says for granted, especially when it comes to its own agenda in Syria.”
The source gave examples of bilateral agreements between Russia and these countries, stressing, “As Iran is the most powerful player on the ground, [their] ultimate purpose is to hinder [Iran’s] influence in Syria.”
Clarifying the complicated nature of relations between Iran and Russia, Hakki Uygur, the vice director of the Ankara-based Center for Iranian Studies, told Al-Monitor, “If there is just one word we could use [to describe] Iran’s foreign policy, it would be distrust.”
He said, “For Iran, Russia is not an exception on this matter, taking into consideration historic and recent experiences with each other on various issues. Tehran knows that Moscow has its own agenda in Syria with Western powers that are not in line with that of Iran — whether it be regarding the 'axis of resistance issue' or Assad. That’s why each actor tries to engage with a maximum number of allies and does not want to take the risk of being alone in such a complicated conflict area."
State dealings are not based on trust but interests. However, there are reasons why these three countries have been able to cooperate with each other until now despite the growing distrust between them. One of the reasons could be their position vis-a-vis the US position in Syria. Yet to what extent this situation can be sustained is questionable.