As the leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia meet to discuss the situation in Syria, the West is closely watching Turkish President Erdoğan's moves on Kurdish separatists in northern Syria, now that Moscow is focused on Ukraine.
It wasn't long ago that Moscow dictated what happened in Syria. Vladimir Putin has been the most important ally of Syria's regime, which would have likely collapsed long ago without Russia's support.
But the war in Ukraine has shifted the political balance in the region — and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can see his chance.
Tuesday's meeting in Tehran of the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran includes an official agenda of working together to improve the situation on the ground in Syria, which has been engulfed in a civil war, backed by foreign regimes, over the past 11 years.
Behind the scenes, however, the aim will be to expand their own influence in the region. And for the West, there are also major interests at stake.
Ankara's goals, a threat to NATO
Erdoğan, in particular, sees an opportunity to pursue his strategic goals. For weeks, he has been talking about a new offensive in northern Syria. He wants to create a 30-kilometer-wide buffer zone there and push back the Kurdish militia YPG, which Erdoğan sees as an extension of the PKK, the guerrilla movement based in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq that Europe classifies as a terrorist organization.
At the same time, such a zone would allow him to settle Syrian refugees from Turkey there. This is an issue creating more and more domestic political pressure for the Turkish president. If Erdoğan gets serious with the new offensive, he risks opening the next conflict within NATO. And the Atlantic military alliance is already striving for unity in the middle of the Ukraine war.
Ankara's presence in Syria has already led to tensions between Turkey and its Western partners in the past, because the YPG was the most important ally of the U.S. in the fight against the ISIS terrorist organization.
Unlikely common ground for the U.S., Iran and Russia
The Pentagon is alarmed. If Kurdish forces were to become engaged in a Turkish invasion, the U.S. worries that thousands of ISIS terrorists could escape from Kurdish-guarded makeshift prisons in the region.
“We strongly oppose any Turkish operation into northern Syria and have made clear our objections to Turkey,” Dana Stroul, the U.S. Defense Department's Middle East officer, said last week.
Indeed, U.S., Iranian and Russian interests overlap on this issue: None of the three governments wants a new Turkish military offensive in northern Syria.
But that is where the common ground ends. Moscow and Tehran have both lobbied hard to keep Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in power.
Moscow needs a stable Syrian government that accepts its strong military presence.
Syria is Moscow's gateway to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It sees its successful intervention in Syria as a sign of the restoration of old power in the region — and for that, it needs a stable Syrian government that accepts its strong military presence.
Access to the Mediterranean is also a cornerstone of Iran's Middle East policy. Moreover, Syria has been Iran's only constant ally since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Through Syria, Iran supplies weapons to its main proxy militia, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah. With its fighters, Iran seeks to strengthen its presence on the border with Israel, which its regime has repeatedly declared its intention to destroy.
Power shift in Syria
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is tying up the Kremlin's resources — and causing power shifts in Syria.
Moscow had to withdraw units from the country and moved soldiers to Ukraine. It has also brought mercenaries from the private security firm Wagner from Syria to eastern Ukraine and sent Syrian mercenaries there.
Turkey's closure of the strategic Bosporus Strait to warships and of Turkish airspace to Russian troop shipments also complicates supplies for the Russian military presence in Syria. Erdoğan is aware that Putin is on the defensive in Syria and apparently fancies his chances of at least a limited Turkish offensive.
Given the West's punitive measures against Russia and Russia's changing energy policy, it is "central for Moscow that Turkey does not impose sanctions," says Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of the think tank Edam. Russia also does not want to alienate Turkey because it is the only NATO country that maintains a political relationship with the Kremlin, he said. This gives Turkey "a certain leverage."
Iranian and Turkish delegations start the summit on the Syrian war in Tehran on July 19.
A Russian vacuum
For his plan, however, Erdoğan also needs the approval of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Tehran is skeptical: Erdoğan wants to conquer regions that are close to Iran's sphere of influence. If anything, Raisi is likely to give his approval for an invasion only with security guarantees for his Shiite protégés.
This is because Tehran is also taking advantage of the Russian vacuum in Syria. To Moscow's displeasure, Iranian forces have reportedly returned to strategically important locations, such as near the Damascus airport and not far from the Israeli border.
Kurdish forces are taking the Turkish threats seriously — and are already forming difficult alliances. Their commander, Mazloum Abdi, has called on Russia and Iran to prevent a Turkish incursion. In addition, Syrian government forces, in coordination with Kurdish representatives, are said to have increased their military presence in some places in the region.
The Black Sea wheat corridor
There is also a planned bilateral meeting between Putin and Erdoğan This is likely to focus on the war in Ukraine, specifically on creating a corridor in the Black Sea to allow grain exports from Ukraine.
With Russia so far blocking Ukrainian ports and the export of agricultural products across the Black Sea, the United Nations says 1.4 billion people worldwide could be affected by food shortages in Africa, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan.
Last week, Russian and Ukrainian representatives had been negotiating in Turkey on a United Nations proposal to unblock grain exports. Ankara maintains good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow and can therefore act as a mediator. Turkish military officials and U.N. representatives also took part in the talks, which were the first direct negotiations between the warring parties in weeks.
There is said to have been a first breakthrough. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement with a view to "joint control" of export ships on departure and arrival. A coordination center is to be established in Istanbul, he said.
Kyiv's main concern is that Russia could take advantage of a possible wheat corridor to attack targets in Ukraine. Therefore, Ukrainian forces have mined the maritime area around Odessa. The mines would have to be removed for the grain exports.
A diplomatic success for Turkey
The current week is crucial for the deal because, according to Defense Minister Akar, the relevant parties are to meet again in Turkey, ideally to sign official agreements. For Turkey, such a mediation would be a major diplomatic success that, in the best-case scenario, could help mitigate a global hunger crisis.
Still, the meeting of Erdoğan, Putin and Raisi is likely to cause at least mixed feelings in the West. Several times in the past, the Turkish president has shown that his own power politics are sometimes more important to him than a unified NATO position.
In the case of the wheat corridor, however, Turkey's role should be viewed positively, believes former Turkish diplomat Sinan Ülgen. After all, he says, there is a reason why the talks are being held in Turkey of all places. "The West must see this as an advantage."
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