Iranian regime media is boasting after a successful summit in Turkey with the Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents. But Iran was not the only winner at the meeting designed to discuss the future of Syria. Russia and Turkey both feel that they are achieving their goals in Syria at the expense of the US. While the three leaders met, Washington was still undecided on what to do in Syria where it has soldiers and bases and is working to defeat Islamic State.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Ankara for their second trilateral meeting on Syria. They see themselves as the “three guarantor states of the ceasefire in Syria,” according to Sputnik media, and they have been participating in talks in Astana relating to “reconciliation.” Absent from all of this is the United States, whose partners among the Syrian Democratic Forces control around third of Syria. The message from the Ankara summit is that the US will play no role in Syria in the future.
The comments coming out of Ankara speak of a “sustainable ceasefire” and “peace and stability” as well as a “strong and continued commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and non-sectarian character of Syria.” The message to Washington is that the US is undermining that “unity” and “territorial integrity” by supporting the SDF and in its continued war against ISIS.
Russia has numerous agendas in working more closely with Turkey in the last two years. First of all, Moscow is disappointed with the US which has expelled dozens of diplomats and accuses Russia of meddling in American elections. Second, Moscow wants to encourage a Turkish-US split in Syria, tepidly backing Turkey against the Kurds in order to undermine the US allies. Also, Moscow wants Turkey’s relationship with NATO to break down. But there is also an economic element. Turkey is building a nuclear power station with Moscow and the construction was launched this week on the $20 billion project.
Turkey feels more confident after the round of meetings. It has been threatening the US and its partners in Syria over the last months. It has also increased its military role in Syria, taking over the province of Afrin from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. On April 4th Turkey’s European Affairs Ministry said that it didn’t want “any of our allies soldiers training YPG terrorists,” a thinly veiled reference to the US training in Syria. Ankara also said after the meeting with the Iranians and Russia that it would not stop until it taken “all regions” under the control of the YPG are “secured.” The appearance of unity between Russia, Iran and Turkey is in stark contrast between the disunity within the US administration. Since US President Donald Trump began hinting of a US withdrawal the Pentagon has been trying to push back. CNN reported that Trump’s national security team warned about withdrawing and “military officials have presented an almost unanimous view that withdrawing US troops from Syria would be a mistake.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, the report claimed, said that Russia, Turkey and Iran would seek to advance their interests if the US pulled back.
The problem is that the US has no clear plan now for Syria, while its adversaries appear to have one. This may be more gloss on the surface than underneath, because Russia and Turkey are ostensibly on opposite sides of the Syrian war. But they share common opposition to the US role. By excluding the US from talks on Syria these countries are sending a clear message. The message is that there’s no reason to have Washington in the room even when discussing major issues where the US has boots on the ground.
This process of divorcing Washington from a role in Syria began under the Obama administration when Russia and Turkey agreed to peace talks in Astana in December 2016. The US was nominally an observer there but the US partners among the SDF were not invited. The recent summit shows how far things have come in a year and a half as the US has been increasingly cut off from an avenue to playing a role in these discussions. There doesn’t seem to be a path back for Washington and that means the outcome of the recent summit will have consequences for US policy. It also means US allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, may have less say in the future of Syria, even though what happens in Syria has ramifications for the whole region.