Iran, Turkey and Russia. Three regional superpowers, three conflicting plans for settling the six-year Syrian Civil War. Yet, on December 20, a trilateral agreement was reached; plans for ceasefires were put into action as the total number of settlements joining the cessation of hostilities rose to 1073 within 24 hours.
Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, invited his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Javad Zarif and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to a meeting in Moscow. The new deal has sparked a political breakthrough as the nations have been able to reach a compromise on the future of Syria. Yet one question remains unanswered: why are countries with polar opposite ideologies working together?
Iran has been working to expand its influence throughout the Middle East, from Tehran to Beirut. However, with Syria being a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, any sort of political solution involving the ousting of President Bashar al-Assad would officially end the rule of the dominant minority of Shia Islam, and therefore thwart the influence of Shia-dominated Iran.
On the other hand, Russia’s focus goes far beyond al-Assad. President Vladimir Putin is aspiring to incapacitate and exhaust the West; he wants to repel the European Union and NATO forces away from nations he believes should be under Russian control. The EU is straining under the pressure to aid refugees, a feat which Putin seems to be proud of.
Turkey has also been dragged into the conflict. This is mainly due to Russia’s support of Rojava, also known as Syrian Kurdistan, who are making advancements against the Islamic State and claiming territory on the Syrian-Turkish border. Despite the UN, US and EU all giving calls for restraint, Turkey has continued to battle the People’s Protection Units (YPG) (the armed forces of Rojava), seeing them as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been internationally classified as a terror organisation.
A day before the meeting between Iran, Turkey and Russia, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was fatally shot by an off-duty police officer. If this event had occurred a year ago then political tensions between the two countries would have escalated to a point that followed the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 shootdown in November 2015.
This time it was different. Putin called the assassination a “provocation aimed at disrupting the normalisation of Russian-Turkish relations and disrupting the peace process in Syria that is being actively advanced by Russia, Turkey and Iran.” In fact, the event has drawn the two countries closer together and Russia has pulled Turkey away from the West after they both began to blame third parties such as NATO, the CIA and even Fetullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in American exile.
Conveniently, the reason for Putin’s self-control is quite simple: he does not want to become distracted from his main agenda. Russia is in a dispute with Iran for influence over Aleppo; Iran is looking to complete its land corridor to the Mediterranean by adding Syria’s strategic heart to its collection. This corridor will give Iran easy access to the Mediterranean Sea and the European market. This will play to their advantage if they wish to close the Strait of Hormuz to economically torture their opponents.
Alternatively, Russia is working with Turkey to evacuate civilians from the city in a plan to seize it before the al-Assad government have a chance to regain control. This will benefit Russia both strategically and diplomatically as Moscow will be the main negotiator in brokering a deal for the future of Syria.
With a power-hungry Iran wanting to expand its political influence, and Russia creating a façade of peacekeeping, where does Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fit in this equation? After the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring, Erdoğan became very critical of the al-Assad regime, publicly advocating its deposal, contending Turkey intervened in Syria “to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror. [We didn’t enter] for any other reason”.
The reasons behind a new alliance has become increasingly visible. Russia, Iran and Turkey all share a common interest in limited the political influence of the US in the Middle East and the rest of Asia.
A new dynamic between Ankara, Tehran and Moscow would reshape the entire Middle East in decades to come. Whilst it is too early to predict a fully-fledged coalition, the idea of three powers investing in military relationships will have vast consequences beyond the Punch and Judy in Syria; the foundation of European security will be tested just as it was during the two World Wars.
There is little use in Europe using its shrinking power to attempt to prevent the inevitable Russo-Iranian-Turkish partnership. Instead, all European countries must become more dominant foreign policy creators. New methods to engage with Moscow, Tehran and Ankara must be constructive and productive if we want to see a peaceful future for Syria.