Analysis

New Ties With Russia Leave Turkey Stuck Between ISIS and Iran

Turkey's simultaneous reconciliation agreements with Russia and Israel provide a rare chance to design a new Middle Eastern policy.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his palace in Ankara, June 27, 2016.
Murat Cetinmuhurdar, AP

The attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul this week, apparently by the Islamic State, clearly shows how Turkey has become a secondary front of the war in Syria. It was the seventh mass terror incident this year and probably won’t be the last, because Turkey is one of the countries that have been marked by ISIS as enemies, both militarily and ideologically.

As long as Turkey was helping ISIS personnel move through its territory into Syria, providing medical aided to ISIS wounded and, in the best case, turnimg a blind eye to oil deals between ISIS and Turkish producers, the country had immunity.

Turkish anti-riot police officers block the main entrance of the Ataturk airport in Istanbul June 28, 2016 after explosions followed by gunfire hit Turkey's biggest airport.
Ozan Kose, AFP

But when it began to attack ISIS bases in Syria, it became a target, open to attack whenever the opportunity arose. To ISIS, Turkey is already part of “the West” – a front on which Turkey is not fighting alone.

New channels opened up for Turkey this week, the most important being its reconciliation with Russia. It was enough to persuse some Iranian newspapers to understand the importance of this channel.

“The end of the good days between Russia and Iran,” was the title of an article published on the Iranian website Aftab, which is close to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. “This is not ideological intervention but rather that which comes from diplomatic considerations with the goal of taking advantage of the new balance of power in the world after the withdrawal of the United States from the arena,” the article said.

Reconciliation with Russia only bolstered the feeling in Iran that Russia could join Turkey in demanding the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and replacing Iran on the Syrian front.

Iran and Russia do not see eye to eye on how to conduct the war in Syria. While Iran wants to complete the conquest of Aleppo, Russia has made clear that such a conquest cannot be expected any time soon. Russia’s ambassador in Damascus stated as much in an interview with the Russian News Agency Interfax, explaining that he does not expect an assault on Aleppo or Raqqah (the ISIS capital in Syria) in the near future.

That contradicted the position of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who called on all forces to come together to fight “the great strategic battle” in Aleppo.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran, Iran, November 23, 2015.
Alexei Druzhinin, Reuters

Iran is not the only one pressured by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s race for reconciliation. The Kurds in Syria fear that rejuvenated ties between Turkey, Russia and Israel could compromise the assistance they are receiving from Russia and could establish a combined Israeli, Russian and Turkish aerial umbrella against an independent Kurdish entity in Syria.

“We must consider our path well in the face of this dangerous development” a senior Kurdish figure told an opposition Syrian website. That is because if in the past the Kurds in Syria could depend on Russian support no matter what, if only because of the rift with Turkey, from now on Russia might change direction. But it will probably not abandon the Kurds for now and let the United States be the only “landlord” in Kurdish operations against ISIS.

The United States is assisting an alliance of Syrian Kurds and Arabs it established called the Syrian Democratic Forces, specifically to mask assistance to the Kurds. Meanwhile, Washington has also adopted the New Syrian Army, a small militia established in late 2015 in the eastern part of Syria near the ISIS-controlled city of Bukamal on the border with Iraq, which is to be deployed to fight in the eastern part of Raqqah when a decision is made to capture it, while the Kurdish forces fight in the west of the city. In this way, Washington believes, the Kurds will be unable to take over Raqqah entirely and create Kurdish territorial contiguity from the Iraqi border to the main Syrian port city of Lattakia in the west.

That is Turkey’s nightmare scenario, which it might now be able to prevent if it persuades Russia to thwart American plans.

Iran has still not abandoned efforts to sideline Russia. The secretary general of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, was this month appointed senior coordinator on Syria between Iran and Russia. Iran fears that Russia does not want to work robustly against the militias trying to bring down Assad. Russia’s willingness to continue attacking the rebel bases from the air depends on Assad’s ability to take more territory, especially Aleppo, which Russia, as noted, is in no hurry to bomb.

This is the juncture at which Russian-Turkish reconciliation could lead to the turnaround Iran seeks, if Russian President Vladimir Putin is able persuade Erdogan to withdraw his demand for Assad to step down immediately.

That seems unlikely, considering Erdogan’s verbal assaults on Assad over the past five years. But Erdogan has also had a bellyful of anger against Israel for the past six years, has had harsh things to say about Russia, and has not spoken with Putin for eight months.

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim hinted at the possibility of renewed economic ties with Egypt in an interview with the Turkish website Haber.

With Erdogan taking steps to reconcile with all Turkey’s neighbors, Assad also might be considered a “good neighbor.” But such a turn could mean the end of the friendly relations created over the past year between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, after years of Turkish exclusion from the Arab sphere.

In any case, Turkey now finds itself in a supermarket of options. The tripartite reconciliation, beyond the huge economic benefits for all the partners, is a rare chance to design a new Middle Eastern policy in which Turkey could be an essential element.