When the tsar Vladimir Putin meets with the sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week in Moscow in the latter’s first foreign visit following the failed coup attempt, the Russian president will feel like a vindicated peacock before a cowering turkey.
They are both apprehensive men, concerned for their repressive authorities and powers. They are both afraid of the quagmires lurking for them: Erdogan in his vendettas in Turkey and Putin in his Syrian adventures. Aleppo will be present at the summit. The battle for the city is a fateful one and its outcome will be contingent in part upon the putative deal between the two enemies, now turned friends of necessity.
The battle for Aleppo also has implications for Iran and its militias, the regime in Damascus, and Gulf capitals and their options after Erdogan’s about face on Russia amid continued American reluctance to offer serious support for Syrian rebels to survive the battle. Aleppo, a major Sunni city, is of invaluable importance for all players in Syria. But capturing it is no easy feat and may well become a predicament that exhausts the might of both Russia and Iran. Perhaps the goal is to turn gains on the ground into bargaining chips for the negotiating table and it is possible that these gains have been made easier by Erdogan’s coming concessions to Putin in Syria.
However, there are tensions between the US and Russia at present, resulting from Moscow’s alleged meddling in US presidential elections and Moscow’s circumvention of John Kerry’s ambiguous understandings with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the Syrian issue. Washington is also apprehensive about Moscow’s cooptation of the new Erdogan and sees it as a loss of a major card in the equation with Russia: Namely, Turkey’s membership of NATO which Washington wanted to use in negotiations on Syria. Today some equations may have changed yet some strategies remain the same and Aleppo is in the heart of all of them.
They are both afraid of the quagmires lurking for them: Erdogan in his vendettas in Turkey and Putin in his Syrian adventures.Raghida Dergham
In February, I quoted in a previous column high-level Russian sources as stressing Moscow's insistence on the importance of winning in Aleppo, no matter the cost in favor of the regime axis. That is, Russia will not ease its airstrikes and support for the pro-regime ground offensive until victory is secured in Aleppo and the rebel supply lines to Turkey are cut off. Moscow believes that a full regime victory in Aleppo will boost its morale and allow it to resume the Russian-led fight against Islamic groups there Moscow designates as terrorists.
It was clear from the start of the year that Aleppo will be a vital milestone for Russian strategy, and that Russia will not stop its bombardment there for anything, be it the Russian-midwifed Vienna process, European reaction over more waves of refugees, or US reaction to the Russian ploy Washington is now sensing.
Some have strongly claimed that Iran is the key power behind the Aleppo offensive rather than Russia and that it was Tehran that persuaded Moscow of fighting the battle to advance its strategic objectives.
What is new here is the Turkish U-turn and its impact on Syria in general and the battle for Aleppo in general. There is even talk of a new tripartite axis as a result of Erdogan’s new course which started with him apologizing to Putin before the failed coup, and which is culminating with the visit to Moscow.
Indeed, in addition to this landmark visit, the Turkish FM has met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif this week in what appears to be the precursors of the emergence of a Turkish Russian Iranian axis. Erdogan has changed the equation in Syria: in that he could concede Syria in return for consolidating his power in Turkey. He is also prepared to settle scores with the US and Europe through the Russian gateway.
In other words, Erdogan is prepared to offer Putin his ‘revengeful services’, mostly through Syria: by cutting off supply routes to the Syrian rebels; by joining the Russian-Iranian axis in Aleppo; and by reaching a deal on keeping in power Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey had long insisted -- but no more -- must step down.
Furthermore, Turkey can use the refugee card to destabilize Europe, especially if Turkey’s doors are opened without restrictions or checks on who is a refugee and who could be a terrorist claiming to be one. Turkey could escalate against the US and end cooperating with the coalition it leads against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And there are many more ways Erdogan will not hesitate to deploy to secure his hold over power
Yet Erdogan, despite his heavy handed response to the coup attempt and his assault on the constitution, the army, journalists and judges, is a worried man. He is now facing a real coup of his own making. In truth, it may be too late now for him to save himself from inevitable revenge.
A fateful fork in the road
Yet until the summit takes place, all stakeholders impacted by Erdogan’s about-turn must revisit their strategies especially in Iraq and Syria. This concerns the Gulf countries first and foremost; for if a Russian-Turkish-Iranian axis emerges in Syria, the matter will have grave consequences for them.
Some believe the fate of Assad is merely a bargaining chip for Russia. Or that Iran and its militias can never recover from the battle of Aleppo no matter the outcome. Regardless, what is happening in Aleppo and Syria is a fateful fork in the road for the country and all parties involved.
To be sure the cost of the war is too high even for the Russian army, now for the first time fighting against a major Sunni Arab force an open war on the latter's own turf. This investment will be costly especially if the battle becomes protracted urban showdown.
Iran will also pay a heavy price in Aleppo if perceived as a Shiite Persian force invading a major Sunni Arab city amid massacres with cover from its sectarian militias. The cost is too high whether an inconclusive victory or a protracted quagmire are the outcome.
Naturally Russia’s weight far surpasses Iran’s in the battle for Aleppo. But they have different goals there. Iran wants total victory, a goal linked to its expansionist strategy in Iraq Syria and Lebanon. But Russia may want different things: It may seek to shore up the regime with a limited victory as a negotiating tactic to impose its vision for a solution in Syria. With Erdogan's U-turn, Russia may be in a position to impose a strategic blockade in Syria with implications for relations with the US.
These are all questions that are the key to understanding what is about to happen in Syria. especially Aleppo. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow will shed some light but it is the duty of Gulf leaders to radically take stock of the Turkish developments and consider their options to avoid becoming de facto partners in the plots being woven at their expense, that is unless they want to be deliberately absent from their historic responsibility vis a vis Aleppo and Syria.
This article was first published in Al-Hayat on August 5, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham