From 2011, when demonstrations broke out against the Assad regime, the war in Syria has been like a multidimensional game of Tic-tac-toe, where various players – countries and groups – are continually moving to acquire territory and influence, while others try to prevent them and at the same time further their own interests.
The Middle East seethes with historical loose ends, overflows with ethnic and national bitterness and ambitions. Any change in any balance sets off chain reactions, forcing all the protagonists – on the ground and in the capitals of distant powers – to seize opportunities or try to prevent developments that will be at their cost.
The situation remains as confused as ever, but today we can see a little more clearly the likely consequences of the new scramble for power in the region. A “snapshot” of events over the past week may help discern the protagonists and the dynamics at work.
Last Wednesday, the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran met in Ankara to discuss the Syrian crisis and also to show the rest of the world that they are cooperating on a range of issues. A day earlier, Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Turkey. He and Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part in a ground-breaking ceremony for a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu in southern Turkey. The two leaders agreed, also, that Turkey will take delivery of a Russian S400 missile defense system in mid-2019. This impending purchase by a NATO ally has alarmed and angered Washington.
As Erdogan, Putin and Hassan Rouhani held their second trilateral meeting on Syria, it was worth remembering that Iran has propped up the government of Bashar al-Assad from the start of the war. Russia saved the regime with its decisive intervention when rebel forces, with strong support from Turkey, seemed to be winning. On the other hand, Erdogan, who once had close ties with Assad, was one of the Syrian president’s worst enemies; indeed, it is most likely that without Turkey the so-called Islamic State may never have acquired the territory and influence that allowed them to butcher untold thousands in Syria and Iraq, and to sow terror across the globe.
Erdogan, however, made the mistake of crossing Putin when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane (and Turkey-supported rebels murdered one of its two pilots) in November 2015. When Erdogan realized that he could not count on NATO allies going to war against Russia for his sake, and when Moscow imposed painful sanctions on Turkey, Ankara began to compromise with regard to Putin’s policy in Syria.
The failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 was decisive: Erdogan thought the United States was out to get him, while Putin expressed his support for him, leading to a further improvement in ties. Since then, European criticism over violations of human rights in Turkey and US policy in Syria have brought Erdogan and Putin even closer.
While Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani were discussing the future of Syria, Donald Trump was sowing confusion, proclaiming that the United States would withdraw “very soon” from Syria. Some 2,000 US troops are stationed in an area that Turkey wants to add to the border zone that it already occupies, so as to block the region’s Kurds from acquiring a corridor toward the Mediterranean. Ankara has demanded that the US troops get out of its way.
The question now is whether the United States will once again betray the Kurds, who played a lead role in the war against Islamic State, for the benefit of an “ally” that changes policy as it sees fit and which is flirting with Russia, or whether Erdogan will be forced to back down, as he has already shown himself capable of doing with regard to Russia, Iran and the Syrian government? Then, if the Kurds are pushed out of the area, will Iran move forward to complete its own zone of influence, liking Tehran to Beirut? What will Turkey, Iran’s fair-weather friend, do then? What will Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sworn enemies, do? Will they press the United States to renege on the deal that prevented Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with all that this implies, or will they attack Iran themselves?
In any case, Turkey will soon have to make clear whether it is with the United States or with Iran. With tension between Washington and Moscow also coming to a head, following the alleged use of poison gas by the Assad regime last week against people in a rebel-held area, Ankara will be called on to clarify on which side it stands here as well. Very soon, today’s impossibly complicated game may be superseded by something even more dangerous.