Turkey’s Rus­sia, Iran links are far from an al­liance

Arab News - - OPINION - SiNem ceN­Giz | Spe­cial to arab NewS

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

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