Secondary relationships born of the Syrian civil war could have a greater impact on the future of the country and the region than the war itself. While the warring parties are busy holding onto and expanding territorial gains, finding funds and arms and jockeying for position in future negotiations, the smaller players are crafting long-range strategies that will divide the region à la the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.
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The secondary relationships are alliances and rivalries that developed between global powers such as Russia and the United States, and between local powers such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But the term is inaccurate in a sense because the Syrian war has long become a proxy war in which the payer of the bills dictates the military movements while changing proxies based on battlefield success.
More importantly, the alliances between the sponsors and “their” militias create the balance of political forces between the powers. For example, Russia uses the Kurds in Syria as a bargaining chip against Turkey, whose cooperation with the Free Syrian Army creates a rift between Ankara and Tehran. Meanwhile, Jordan’s strikes on the Islamic State in southern Syria boost the Russian-Jordanian coalition and Jordan’s ties with the Assad regime and everyone is looking ahead to "the day after.”
The latest development puts Turkish-Iranian relations to the test. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference a week ago Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on Iran to stop threatening the region’s stability and security. The remark wasn’t only unusually blunt but also seemed to come from an American talking-points page. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi responded the next day, warning that while Turkey was an important neighbor, “there is a certain cap to our patience.”
Tehran and Ankara are deeply divided over the Assad regime, and particularly over whether the Syrian president should stay on after a negotiated settlement. But these disagreements didn’t affect the two countries’ bilateral trade of some $10 billion a year.
Iran was the first country to denounce the failed coup attempt in Turkey last July, and President Hassan Rohani is on track for a fourth visit to Ankara in April. Tehran and Ankara share an interest in preventing the establishment of an independent Kurdish region in Syria that could inspire the Kurds in Iran and Turkey.
But Ankara and Tehran are each deeply suspicious of the other’s strategic ambitions. Turkey believes that Iran seeks to turn Iraq and Syria into Shi’ite states, while Iran is sure that Turkish President Recet Tayyip Erdogan dreams of reestablishing the Ottoman Empire.
The Iranians were apprehensive about the liberation, by Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army, of al-Bab, a city around 30 kilometers from Aleppo, even though the defeated party was the Islamic State. The Iranians were worried because control over al-Bab, whose liberation the Free Syrian Army announced Friday, opens up the route critical to retaking Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital in Syria. Control over al-Bab is also key for taking control of the Iraq-Syria border, which Tehran views as critical.
Russia, Turkey and the Kurds
Thus a kind of competition over the conquest of al-Bab took place between Turkey and the Free Syrian Army, on one side, and Syria and the Iranian militias on the other. As the Turkish forces broke through from the north, the Syrian forces were advancing from the south.
If the reports of al-Bab’s liberation are right, this wouldn’t only be a blow to Syria and Iran, it would be proof of the strength of the alliance between Turkey and Russia. The latter declined to halt the Turkish advance, even though it undermined Syria’s efforts and Iran's aspirations.
Still, these reports should be taken with a grain of salt, because just last week, after Turkey’s military chief Hulusi Akar declared that the battle for al-Bab had ended, Syrian opposition sources announced that most of the city was still controlled by the Islamic State.
The assumption underlying Russian policy is that when the time comes for a diplomatic solution, Turkey won’t pose an obstacle and will agree to withdraw its forces, as long as Russia guarantees that no independent Kurdish region will arise in Syria.
This assumption rests on the agreements reached so far between Russia and Turkey, which have encompassed not only military cooperation (such as joint bombing runs by the Russian and Turkish air forces in the al-Bab region), but also the steps leading to the cease-fire in Aleppo. The latter were originally decided on by Russia and Turkey without Iran’s involvement; Tehran joined only at a later stage.
The close coordination between Turkey and Russia has also extended to Israel. First, Israel and Russia reached agreements on which Israeli airstrikes in Syria were permissible and set up a hotline between the two air forces. Turkey later became a party to this coordination – not just because of its aerial operations in Syria, but because Turkey and Israel have begun to revive military cooperation.
The diplomatic clashes between Turkey and Iran don’t at all mean that the countries are on a collision course that will end in a complete rift. Aside from their economic ties, which are important in and of themselves, the two countries share strategic interests in the region.
For example, Turkey relies on Iranian gas and oil, while Iran seeks to become an inseparable part of regional diplomacy in which Turkey is an important player. One such process relates to the long-standing balance of power or of intimidation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran vs. the Saudis
Ever since Turkey joined the “Sunni coalition” set up by Saudi King Salman, who seeks to block Iranian influence in the region, Tehran has been trying to strengthen its ties with Arab and Muslim states as a counterweight to Saudi influence. For example, it has ceaselessly explored the chances of rehabilitating its relationship with Egypt, especially after Egyptian-Saudi relations hit a snag.
In November, Egyptian Petroleum Minister Tarek El Molla came to Tehran to explore the possibility of obtaining oil from Iran to replace the shipments frozen by Riyadh. Later, Iran made clear it wants Egypt to take part in reconciliation talks between the Syrian opposition and the regime.
Iran also maintains normal relations with Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. But it attributes great importance to its relations with Turkey, as a counterweight to the latter’s close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Turkey, which is being courted by both Tehran and Riyadh, has its sights set on a regional alliance in which it plays a key role, especially now that Saudi Arabia has distanced itself from the Syrian crisis. Ankara even envisions itself as a possible mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a proposal it tried unsuccessfully to advance about a year ago.
In this web of complex diplomatic balances of power, the United States is almost completely absent. Aside from its very active participation in the war against the Islamic State, which is coordinated with Russia and Turkey, the Trump administration hasn’t yet crafted positions on issues such as replacing the Syrian regime, the nature of the new regime and the fate of President Bashar Assad or the rebel organizations.
Also, Trump said a few weeks ago that Washington shouldn’t be involved in regime change in other countries and declined to specify whether U.S. assistance to the rebels would continue. All these issues are now under Russia’s exclusive management, and Trump appears to be quite satisfied with that situation.
America’s absence from the Syrian front combined with Turkey’s U-turn on the Assad regime to whose survival Ankara no longer vociferously objects requires Saudi Arabia to reconsider its policy. If under U.S. President Barack Obama Riyadh feared losing its privileged position to Iran, it’s now discovering that Trump, who has marked Iran as a target and is considering new sanctions on it, may end up bolstering the Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance at Saudi Arabia’s expense.