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Turkish-Russian-Iranian Summit: Limits to a Tripartite Entente

Putin has Turkey exactly where he wants it: As an upset NATO ally willing to break ranks with the alliance’s stance toward Russia.

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Takeaways


  • Putin has Turkey exactly where he wants it: as an upset NATO ally willing to break ranks with the alliance's stance toward Russia.
  • The Turks defeated all of their neighbors except Russia and Iran. This elevates the two countries in the Turkish view of the world and Ankara tends to tread carefully with the Russians and Iranians.
  • The rival Ottoman and Persian Empires fought themselves into bankruptcy after two centuries of inconclusive wars, so they settled on a power parity relationship in the mid-1600s.
  • Moscow remains Turkey's historic adversary, despite their common cause on certain regional issues.

Editor’s note: This article is co-authored by Anna Borshchevskaya and Nader Uskowi

Erdogan, Putin, and Rouhani have been meeting more frequently of late. This suggests the emergence of a tripartite relationship. In reality, however, ties between Ankara and Tehran are wrought with tensions, and Moscow remains Turkey’s historic adversary, despite their common cause on certain regional issues.

The view from Ankara

During six centuries of Ottoman rule, the Turks defeated and ruled over all of their neighbors except Russia and Iran. This fact elevates the two countries in the Turkish view of the world. Accordingly, Ankara tends to tread carefully with the Russians and Iranians, neither confronting nor ignoring them.

The relationship with Moscow suffered from historic rivalries before the twentieth century and throughout the Cold War. Relations improved after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Helped by booming trade, Turkish-Russian ties took off during the 1990s and 2000s, allowing the two countries to enter a lengthy period of improved relations for the first time in history.

Yet, the Syria war undermined these ties as Moscow threw its lot behind the Assad regime and Ankara backed his adversaries.

The situation worsened in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian plane that violated its airspace. Putin responded by slappingAnkara with economic sanctions and threatening to target Turkish forces entering Syria in support of the rebels.

The tide turned again after the failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, which spurred Putin to soften his policy in order to take advantage of growing anti-Western sentiment in Turkey.

Blaming NATO

Many opinion-makers, including members of Erdogan’s party, alleged that the United States and other NATO allies were behind the coup. And while some of these same allies were slow in reaching out to Ankara once the coup was put down, Putin called Erdogan the day after and wished him well. Bilateral ties have improved ever since.

In Syria, the Turks and Russians have arrived at a modus vivendi, cutting deals and deconflicting their forces in the north on a case-by-case basis.

Most recently, Putin gave Ankara a green light for Operation Olive Branch, which resulted in Turkey capturing Afrin from the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey’s longtime enemy.

In return, Erdogan has stayed quiet while Russia helps the Assad regime bomb civilians in East Ghouta, one of the last remaining rebel-held de-escalation zones.

Going forward, Putin will likely offer Erdogan further ad hoc deals in northern Syria, such as in Tal Rifaat, allowing Turkey to make new advances at the YPG’s expense in exchange for continued acquiescence to Russian moves.

Erdogan would accept most any deal that helps him defeat the YPG and PKK, two organizations that are almost universally despised in Turkey. Putin will also presumably request Ankara’s support for the Astana peace process, Russia’s alternative to the UN’s Geneva-based negotiations aimed at ending the war.

In short, Putin has Turkey exactly where he wants it: As an upset NATO ally willing to break ranks with the alliance’s stance toward Russia. Most recently, Turkey joined a few other NATO members in refusing to follow the U.S. path of ejecting Russian diplomats in response to the Kremlin’s suspected attempted assassination of a former intelligence officer in Britain.

Putin does not want Turkey to leave NATO — he wants it to remain in the alliance as a nonparticipating member, thereby undermining the organization’s effectiveness.

The Turkey-Iran relationship

As for Turkey and Iran, the relationship is wrought with differences, many of them rooted in Tehran’s discomfort about the Afrin operation and similar deals that have allowed Ankara to capture Syrian territory with Putin’s blessing.

Unlike Moscow, Iran is uncomfortable with a “soft partition” outcome in Syria and objects to any Turkish military presence there. Accordingly, Iranian-backed militias have repeatedly targeted Turkish forces in the north even as Russia green-lights Ankara’s cross-border moves.

Historically speaking, the rival Ottoman and Persian Empires fought themselves into bankruptcy after two centuries of inconclusive wars, so they settled on a power parity relationship in the mid-1600s, agreeing to avoid future conflict against each other at any cost.

In Tehran’s view, however, Ankara’s support for rebels fighting the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus violates that historic parity—indeed, the Syria war is the closest the two countries have come in recent memory to outright conflict.

Iran’s fortunes and allies are currently ascendant there, so it will likely attempt to restore its power parity with Turkey on its own terms—namely, by demanding complete cessation of Ankara’s support to the rebels and otherwise forcing the Turks to recognize full Iranian control over Syria.

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About Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.

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