Analysts Say Russia, Iran Unlikely to Concede to Turkey on Syria Worries
Leaders of the three countries to meet September 16 in Turkish capital
[Istanbul] Turkey will likely use a mid-September meeting with Russia and Iran to continue to push for the Assad regime to refrain from attacking rebels in the northwest, though to little avail, analysts have told The Media Line.
The summit is set to take place in the Turkish capital of Ankara on September 16. Russia and Iran support Syria’s Bashir al-Assad while Turkey backs rebel forces.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are on opposite sides from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the three have been able to cooperate over the last major rebel stronghold, including Idlib Province, the scene of heavy fighting.
Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, a global consultancy group, told The Media Line that there have been some agreements made in past summits and that while “face-saving measures” are still possible, major obstacles will persist.
“The problem is if they still don’t fundamentally resolve the permanent status of Turkey in the area, it won’t end the Syrian government’s desire to retake these territories,” he said.
Turkey’s top priority, he added, is to maintain influence in Syria so that its enemies are not emboldened if they see Ankara retreating.
“The foes in those areas need to continue to be frightened by Turkey,” he explained.
Ankara wants the Syrian area near the border with Turkey to be cleared of fighters from the Kurdish YPG militia, which it contends is linked to the Kurdish PKK militia. The latter has been seeking autonomy for Kurds in Turkey and was declared a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
Turkish-backed rebels claim areas they control in Syria have been attacked by Kurdish fighters. The Reuters news agency reported that bomb-laden motorbikes killed a civilian and injured 16 others on Tuesday in a town near the border.
While Turkey is trying to work with Russia in northwestern Syria, it is also has a shaky agreement with the US in the northeastern part of the country. Washington and Ankara agreed in August to set up a joint operation center to develop what Turkey states would be a safe zone in the region, although it continues to threaten an offensive if plans for the safe zone do not move along quickly.
Timothy Ash, a London-based economist focusing on Russia and Turkey, told The Media Line that Erdogan will using the September meeting to push for commitments from Syria that it will not move farther into Idlib, although he believes Russia and Iran are unlikely to relinquish any of their leverage over Turkey.
“They like the current status quo,” Ash explained. “Erdogan is in a pretty weak position.”
An attack on Idlib would be especially problematic for the Turkish leader because it would likely push hundreds of thousands of Syrians toward the border for safety inside Turkey, which hosts more displaced Syrians than any other country, with 3.6 million.
Polls show that most Turks, who are facing a struggling economy, want Syrians to return home. Resentment toward refugees was blamed for the defeat of Erdogan’s party in the Istanbul mayoral race in June.
Ash stated that Moscow’s top goal is to push Turkey away from its western allies, especially the US, as evidenced by the arms deal it signed with Ankara for air-defense missiles.
The Turkish Defense Ministry tweeted last month that it received a second shipment of the S-400 system. The deal between Moscow and Ankara caused a major rift with the US, which suspended Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 stealth jet program. Washington is also contemplating sanctions.
Simon Waldman, a visiting fellow in Middle Eastern studies at King’s College in London, agrees with Ash in that Russia is trying to distance Turkey from the US, something that would limit Washington’s ability to influence Syria through Ankara. But it goes beyond that.
“Quite frankly, the dream for Moscow for years is some kind of significant rift within NATO,” Waldman told The Media Line.
“The rift between Turkey and the United States,” he said, “couldn’t have been better for Russian interests.”