Turkey, Russia, Iran: Unlikely ‘allies’ united by a common threat
I have always been cautious about using the word “alliance” to describe the cooperation between Russia, Turkey and Iran as part of the Astana Process for peace in Syria. When considering the history of relations between these three countries, one would hardly conclude that they were obvious bedfellows. It would therefore be unrealistic, inaccurate and an overstatement to describe what has been going between these three countries in recent years as an alliance, a partnership or even a strategic pact, as is being claimed by some people these days. However, the nature of international politics is such that states do not only cooperate to forge alliances; they also put aside their differences to work together to counter a common threat. That is what is happening with this tripartite group.
Several threats have brought these three countries together: The war in Syria, extremism, Kurdish separatism (a direct threat to Turkey and Iran, but Russia shares their security concerns) and, most importantly, the policies of US President Donald Trump’s administration, which have affected all three countries in various ways.
Russia and Iran, both of whom are overtly anti-American, have been trying to weaken the US position and resist the pressure and limitations placed on them by Washington. Trump announced on Wednesday, for example, that he will impose additional economic sanctions on Iran over the recent attack on Saudi oil facilities, for which Tehran is blamed. His administration previously stated that it was considering imposing sanctions on Turkey, after the country signed a deal to purchase a Russian-made S-400 air defense missile system, though no decisions have yet been made.
The fifth trilateral summit of the Astana Process took place in the Turkish capital Ankara last week. Ahead of the gathering, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at Cankaya Palace. The meetings come at a time when expectations about the future of the Astana Process are quite low, mostly as a result of the Assad regime’s military operations in Idlib since the beginning of August. Nevertheless, it seems that the echoes from the summit will continue to be heard for some time. It would not be wrong to say that rather than a summit designed to find a way to bring peace to Syria, it was more like a summit in opposition to US hegemony in the region.
In addition to the views about the actions of the US, another point was significantly underlined in the summit’s joint communique: The territorial integrity of Syria. In a joint statement issued after the meeting, the three presidents emphasized their strong commitment “to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”
There was also a clear rejection by Tehran and Moscow of any role for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG). They also announced that a constitutional committee for Syria will be formed soon, in cooperation with the UN. In addition, Turkey, Russia, Germany and France will hold a “quartet summit” in early October.
It is no secret that the relationships between the Astana nations and the West are strained, to varying degrees. However, there can be no permanent solution to the Syrian conflict from which Western powers are excluded; they are part of the problem and so must be part of the solution. In the eyes of the Astana guarantors, however, the US is not a Western power that should be cooperated with, but one that should be balanced against.
Turkey is different from Iran and Russia, and its national security priorities, alliances and treaties are therefore different.
One of the most prominent threats to Turkey’s security is posed by Kurdish militias, which are supported by the US. Therefore, improving relations with Russia, China and other Middle Eastern countries might provide Turkey with a counterbalance to its “NATO ally.”
As a country with limited economic and military capacities in comparison to global powers, Turkey will inevitably seek a balance that relieves the pressure from the US and offers more room to maneuver. However, history is a good teacher. If this situation falls under what we call balance of threat theory — which suggests that states form alliances based upon perceived common threats (rather than the balance of power theory, which argues that states ensure survival by preventing any one state from becoming militarily dominant) — then there could be limits to this strategy.
Just as Turkey’s over-reliance on the West as a balance against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era was costly to Ankara, its reliance on Russia as a balance against the US might bring with it disquieting challenges.
Turkey is different from Iran and Russia, and its national security priorities, alliances and treaties are therefore different. First and foremost, it is a NATO member. Its geographic location is highly strategic, as it is a bridge between East and West. This strategic importance means Turkey will always play a crucial role in international politics, and is why maintaining good relations with both East and West is advantageous.
As a rational state, and recalling the lessons from the Cold War era, a consistently balanced foreign policy is what will bring a the most positive results for Turkey.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz