Divergences over Turkish incursion reflected at conference in Moscow

Moscow and Tehran may see the opportunity to promote a wider rift between Turkey and the United States as too tempting to forego.
Sunday 04/03/2018
Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin (L) and Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club Andrey Bystritskiy attend the Valdai Club conference on Russia in the Middle East.  (Valdai Discussion Club)
Expert dialogue. Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Vitaly Naumkin (L) and Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club Andrey Bystritskiy attend the Valdai

On the opening of the Valdai Club conference on Russia in the Middle East, representatives from Russia, Iran and Syria denounced US policy in Syria. They portrayed Russia and Iran as fighting terrorism while US actions were characterised as supporting it.

Speakers at the meetings in Moscow agreed on their criticism of the United States but there was an important difference among them regarding Turkey.

Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad, denounced Turkey’s intervention in Afrin in north-western Syria. She described Ankara’s actions as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and accused Turkey of facilitating the infiltration of mercenaries across the Syrian-Turkish border. She accused Turkey of not implementing the Astana agreement among Russia, Iran and Turkey on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria.

The view of Turkey’s role in Syria expressed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, though, was quite different. Both portrayed Turkey as a partner in Syria.

Lavrov pointed out that US support for Syrian Kurdish forces alienated Turkey. Ankara fears that the more powerful the Syrian Kurds grow, the more powerful separatist Kurds in Turkey will become. Zarif described Turkey’s anxiety about US support for Syrian Kurdish forces as “understandable.”

Moscow and Tehran, however, are reported to be apprehensive about Turkey’s intervention in Syria. There have been reports that Russian forces in Syria helped transport Kurdish fighters opposing the Turkish incursion to the battlefield. However, if Moscow and Tehran share Damascus’s anxiety about Turkish policy, even if not to the same degree, why would Lavrov and Zarif downplay their differences with Ankara?

One possibility is that, whatever their discomfort with Turkey’s military action in Afrin, Moscow and Tehran may see the opportunity to promote a wider rift between Turkey and the United States as too tempting to forego. Because US support for the Syrian Kurds is promoting Turkish hostility towards Washington, neither Moscow nor Tehran wants to discourage this dynamic by directly confronting Turkish policy in Syria. To achieve this “greater good,” Moscow and Tehran are quite willing to ignore Damascus’s denunciation of Turkey’s intervention.

Yet Moscow’s policy has another layer of complexity, as the session on the Kurds at the conference made clear. While not directly opposing Turkey’s intervention against them, Moscow appears to be competing with the United States for influence with the Syrian Kurds by arguing that they would be better protected from Turkey through allying with the Damascus regime. This, they argue, would afford Syrian Kurds better protection than relying only on US support, which they see Washington as unwilling to sustain in the long run.

Can Russia really hope to get closer to Ankara by exploiting Turkish-American differences over the Syrian Kurds while luring the Syrian Kurds away from Washington through offering them a “better” means for resisting Turkey? These aims seem contradictory.

However, as contradictory as these aims may be, it is the United States’ Syria policy that has encouraged Russian hopes of achieving them. This is because the United States has supported the Syrian Kurds enough to alienate Turkey but not enough to protect them from it, thus giving both Turkey and the Syrian Kurds incentive to cooperate with Moscow.

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