BY: ÇETİNER ÇETİN*
It has been two years since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed air forces to Syria to protect the remaining state of Bashar Assad from rebels. More importantly, however, it has been three years since Putin staged a diplomatic coup in the region because of the U.S.’s failure to take initiative. It seems geopolitical fault lines in the region will significantly move in 2017 which started with major developments.
Lame-duck Barack Obama, the first black president of the U.S., did not impose necessary sanctions against the Assad regime’s use of sarin gas against rebels near Damascus and made do with the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Now, there are two key facts that new president Donald Trump must confront in the Middle East in the first 100 days of his tenure: First, the U.S. has lost all positions to Iran and Russia because of Obama’s intricate policies. Second, he must confront with Turkey, an ally which fell to loggerhead with Washington and lost confidence in it as a result of the U.S. administration’s friendly attitude on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) during the Syrian crisis.
In fact, if we are to summarize the relations that have developed over the last year, we can say that Russia has been steadfast in supporting the Damascus and Baghdad governments. On the other hand, Washington, namely the Obama administration, supported Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and insisted that Assad should not go since 2011. Turkey, on the other hand, has been pushing for a Syria without Assad for the past five years. The second priority for Ankara was to remove Daesh and the PKK from the border. However, given the new power balances in the region, these priorities have shifted for Ankara.
Russia is allied with Iran in Syria. This was very decisive in choosing ranks in the first stage. However, today Trump’s remarks that he can reconcile with Russia in the field can gradually bring about rivalry between Russia and Iran. Trump’s statements might indicate that hard times lie ahead of Iran while Trump wants to have a spring atmosphere through alliance with Russia in the region.
But there is a political balance as a legacy of the Obama period. On the contrary, the U.S. finds itself in the same ranks as Iran in Iraq in a disturbing way. It supports al Abadi and takes position against Sunni jihadists and Daesh. This is a result of the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq where it placed the Shiite administration in the center of the Arab world for the first time in centuries.
The position of Turkey and Iran in this picture is complicated to the same extent. The first frontier of political conflicts and internal turbulence between Ankara and Tehran is undoubtedly Syria. Over the years, both sides have tried to stay away from internal conflicts. However, due to the developments that have taken place in Syria since the ceasefire agreement, political controversies about Syria have emerged between the two parties.
Turkey’s recent statement that Iran adopts sectarian attitude and that Ankara and Moscow’s rapprochement disturbed Tehran was the first round of the clash.
It is very clear that this statement stemmed from the divergence of the two countries about the truce in Syria. While Turkey and Russia are striving for the implementation of the deal, it is no secret that Iran is not happy with this agreement, and Hezbollah sabotages it on the field.
My enemy’s enemy is my friend
Russia and Turkey’s guarantor position in the Astana talks and their support for ceasefire, as well as news about Iran’s support to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), causes tension in bilateral relations. While Iran tried to open the ways of meeting with PYD Chair Salih Muslim two years ago, Turkey
added him to terrorist list. While Iranian diplomats and Iranian intelligence developed relations with the PYD directly and through the PKK, they are avoiding consensus with Turkey today even though the two countries are in a consensus on fighting the PKK.
Therefore, the consensus reached between Turkey and Russia regarding the removal of Iranian militants from Syria revealed the difference in interests. For this reason, Iran is trying to escalate the situation. Iranian International Relations Undersecretary Ali Akbar Velayati said, “The withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria is a trivial media issue,” revealing that they do not want to open a deeper front to Ankara before Trump officially takes office.
Of course, there are also economic interests between the two countries regarding this political confrontation in the Syrian territory. Iran is the most important oil source for Turkey and the fifth largest country importing goods from Turkey. But, can this top-level relationship eliminate political disputes regarding national security? I do not think, as Ankara does not want to turn a blind eye to the PKK’s relations with Iran as in the 1990s.
Developments in the Barada Valley are determinative
Turkish and Russian guarantors consider peace talks separately from the often-violated ceasefire process and military developments in the Barada Valley where the regime is making progress. The developments in the Barada Valley have been the most obvious point that has pushed military groups to rest before they decide to join the Astana talks. The sources in the region comment that the ceasefire agreement, which has been carried to Astana, is “related to the northern regions, not to the Damascus countryside.” On the other hand, groups say that they hold talks to “make the ceasefire agreement permanent” and a decision was made during the meeting after the issue of Ahrar al-Sham’s participation was resolved.
On the other hand, in response to the allegations that Turkey is pressuring groups regarding participation in negotiations, Ayman Harush, an assembly member of Ahrar al-Sham, denied the allegations with a tweet, saying, “Turks are broad-minded and sometimes they accept objections that go beyond diplomatic discourse.”
While all this was happening, the Barada Valley, which is the water reservoir of Damascus, witnessed violent clashes between regime forces and opposition groups recently. According to a rebel source, the regime plans to take control of the Barada Valley using the way it controlled controlling Aleppo by dividing the region into districts. The situation in the region was strained with the assassination of retired Major General Ahmed al Ghadban, the President of the Negotiating Commission, by unidentified armed people on Sunday night. Al Ghadban was charged with supervising the implementation of the peace treaty between the regime and groups just before the assassination.
*Çetiner Çetin is a Turkish journalist. He wrote this article exclusively for the Middle East Observer on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.