Earlier this week Russian President Vladimir Putin, still beaming from his re-election victory, tried to heighten his global profile with a much-advertised “summit” with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(A brief tripartite sitting with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was later added as a footnote to “exchange views” on Syria.)
At tactical level Putin and Erdogan need each other.
Erdogan gives Putin, who is asserting himself as the arbiter of Syria’s future, as an “Islamic” cover to counter claims that Russia, having bombed large parts of Syria into rubble and killing tens of thousands of civilians, is now at war with Islam. It is no accident that Kremlin’s recent “advice” to Muslim preachers in mosques across the Russian federation includes the claims that Putin’s moves in Syria are backed by Erdogan.
For his part Erdogan, too, needs Putin a tactical level. It was Putin who told his protégé Bashar al-Assad not to press acclaim for control of Syrian Kurdish areas annexed by Turkey in recent operations. Russian forces in Syria looked the other way as Turkish forces carved out the Syrian cordon sanitaire that Erdogan wanted.
It was also thanks to a nod and a wink from Putin that the mullahs of Tehran suddenly ceased their initially violent denunciation of Turkey for annexing chunks of Syrian territory. Furthermore, Erdogan, as any middleweight player in a power game knows, needed a big power protector against another big power, in this case the United States.
More importantly, perhaps, both Putin and Erdogan needed each other complete Iran’s exclusion from the top table on Syria, a process that started in 2015 when Putin rode in to claim the title of protector for what is left of Assad’s ramshackle regime. A group of Iranian parliamentarians who visited Damascus recently were surprised to find posters celebrating the “victory” of Putin and Assad with no mention of Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, let alone Gen. Assam Soleimani the self-promoting the poster-boy of “Imamist Jihad”.
Another poster distributed in Deir az-Zour puts giant images of Putin and Assad in the front section with small images of Khamenei and the Lebanese "Hezbollah" chief Hasan Nasrallah in the background.
To hammer in the point that we are witnessing a two-man show, Putin and Erdogan did all they could to be seen together, announced grandiose plans for a nuclear industry in Turkey, re-hashed old projects for oil and gas pipelines and even evoked the sale of Russian military hardware to Turkey.
The Putin-Erdogan tandem’s aim is to marginalize Iran’s role in Syria, to encourage US President Donald Trump’s penchant for withdrawal from the Syrian quagmire and to allow no space for any Arab initiative on Syria. With the remnants of the Assad regime reduced to irrelevance, Putin and Erdogan hope to seize sole control of Syria’s destiny.
But how realistic is such an ambition? The short answer is: not very!
Excluding Iran from the Syria scene? Not easy
There is no doubt that Iran’s role in Syria has been dramatically reduced while Putin has denied Iran its own share of Syrian territory in which to set up a permanent base through which to maintain control over Lebanon. Iran’s fundamental weakness in Syria is that it has no indigenous constituency. Tukey can count on the sympathy of the Muslim Arab majority in Syria while Russia is cast as protector of the Alawite and Christian minorities there.
Iran, however, cannot count on any such popular support base. But Iran remains the biggest paymaster for the Assad regime. In fact, before travelling to Turkey for a mini-meeting with Putin and Erdogan, Rouhani had hinted that he would demand that Russia and Turkey make a serious contribution to the cost of keeping Syria “safe from terrorists”. Iran’s other asset in Syria is the estimated 40,000 mercenaries he has recruited from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That makes ran the second largest military force on the ground after the remnants of Assad’s army and ancillaries’.
Putin and Erdogan would be mistaken if they think they could easily exclude Iran from the Syrian scene.
Putin and Erdogan would be equally wrong if they take a Trumpian tweet as a US decision to withdraw from Syria. It may be hard to guess Trump’s next move on Syria or, indeed, on any other issues. But, right now, political, diplomatic, economic and military facts on the ground point to an American comeback to the Middle East as a major player. With victory over the so-called Islamic Caliphate now almost complete the US would be ill-advised to throw away its laurels and hand the trophy to rivals and adversaries in the region.
Putin and Erdogan may also be underestimating the ability of Arab states to seek a leading role in shaping Syria’s future. The prospect of a Turko-Russian tandem to dominate the region, with Iran playing second violin, is unlikely to leave most Arab states indifferent.
Machiavellians may suggest that it is not so bad to let Putin and Erdogan, with the mullahs of Tehran hanging to their tailcoats, to remain bogged down in a Syria reduced to the status of an ungoverned territory consisting of mile after mile of rubble. With their economies in meltdown mode Russia, Turkey and Iran are in no position to rebuild Syria into anything resembling a functioning state.
That immense task requires genuine international participation which means an active role by the United States, the European Union, the Arb state; China and Japan among others.
Putin and Erdogan have not been able to forge a realistic policy on Syria.
Such policy could only be based on one inclusion and one exclusion.
The inclusion part would aim at acknowledging the interests and concerns of all foreign powers as well as all domestic forces involved in the seven-year old imbroglio that country.
Such inclusion need not take the model of the Berlin Conference on the division of colonies among major European powers. But it would have to accept cold realities on the ground at a time priority must be given to restoration of a measure of stability.
The exclusion part would have to apply to the Assad regime which is already no more than walking caricature of the “undead”, and to the remnants of its evil twin "ISIS".
Syria can be saved, but only if it is saved for all, starting with its martyrized people. This week we heard nothing from Putin and Erdogan to show that they understand that simple fact.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.