Turkey’s Russia, Iran links are far from an alliance
The three countries have managed to turn Syria from a bone of contention into a bridge between their capitals, but it would be naive to expect their tactical cooperation to turn into a strategic partnership.
THE presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran will come together on April 4 in Istanbul for a three-way summit on Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be hosting his counterparts Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani in the second such tripartite summit following the one last November in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
In order to prepare the ground for this meeting, the foreign ministers of the three countries met in the Kazakh capital of Astana on March 16 to discuss the progress over the last year of the Astana process for Syria peace.
A day before the Istanbul summit, the Turkey-Russia High Level Cooperation Council will meet in Ankara. Besides the Syrian war and Turkish-Russian bilateral ties, one of the most interesting aspects of Putin’s visit will be a foundation laying ceremony for the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which Putin and Erdogan are expected to attend.
This will be a second ground-breaking ceremony for Turkey’s first nuclear power plant after the first was held in April 2015, but the project was halted when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border in November of the same year.
According to experts who follow RussoTurkish relations closely, the nuclear plant, which will be built by Russia’s Rosatom in the Akkuyu district of the southern province of Mersin at a cost of $20 billion, is the largest joint project that symbolizes strategic relations between Moscow and Ankara.
Thus, Putin’s presence at the ceremony would be highly significant and symbolic at a time when the West has its eyes fixed on the deepening ties between Turkey and Russia. This week, Turkish and Western leaders came together at a high-level summit in Varna, Bulgaria, where they agreed to accelerate Turkish-EU relations. However, they also underlined that not all the negatives between Ankara and Brussels have been left behind.
While both sides reiterated their commitment to continuing the dialogue, there was another significant development taking place between the West and Russia. On the same day, 14 EU member states expelled dozens of Russian diplomats in an orchestrated reaction over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. Unlike those countries, Turkey has said it has no plans to expel Russian diplomats, saying Ankara and Moscow have positive and good relations and that Turkey was not in a position to take such action against Moscow.
In light of this decision, the summit on Syria in Istanbul aims to show a picture of strengthening collaboration among Turkey, Russia and Iran via the Astana peace process. I would prefer to call the Astana process a “cooperation” between these three countries rather than an “alliance,” as many experts and analysts describe the relationship. In light of the Astana talks, many started to argue that a new alliance had emerged among Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, particularly against a common threat: The US. However, it would not be wrong to argue that the theories of an alliance are likely to fail to explain the situation among the three countries in the Astana talks.
When looking closely at Turkey’s bilateral relations with both Russia and Iran from a historical perspective, it is clear that these countries have never formed an alliance and are unlikely to do so in the future. History is certainly a good guide. Although the current crisis in Turkish-US ties serves the interests of Russia and Iran, it would be simplistic to argue that these countries have formed an alliance against a common threat. There are still significant differences between these countries’ perceptions of the US presence in the Middle East.
Also, for its part, Ankara is unlikely to give up its special role in NATO because neither Turkey nor the alliance has good reason to cut ties.
Also, there are still existing differences among these three countries on a number of issues. However, one should give credit for their collaboration in the Astana process, which seems to be a good example of pragmatic, rational and result-oriented mediation efforts for the Syrian war.
Needless to say, among the several attempts at mediation, the Astana process that was launched in January 2017 with the aim of putting an end to the violence and improving the humanitarian situation in war-torn Syria seems to be the most realistic and successful, at least for now, when considering progress on the ground.
The three countries have managed to turn Syria from a bone of contention into a bridge between three capitals. However, it would be naive to expect the tactical cooperation among these countries to turn into a strategic partnership or an alliance when considering the potential differences among them, which could resurface as a result of unpredictable developments on the ground. At the end of the day, these three countries are seeking a greater role in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz