US rivals determined to widen influence in Syria as Trump signals withdrawal

The three countries had no joint plan for Syria beyond a rejection of the US role.
Sunday 08/04/2018
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (L), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin leave after a joint press conference in Ankara, on April 4.(Reuters)
Divide and rule. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (L), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) and Russian President Vladimir Putin leave after a joint press conference in Ankara, on April 4.(Reuters)

WASHINGTON - Russia, Turkey and Iran are determined to widen their role in Syria with the United States contemplating a withdrawal from the war-torn country but the trio is unlikely to agree beyond a joint wish to push the United States out, analysts said.

At a meeting April 4 in Ankara, Russia President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani agreed to “speed up their efforts to ensure calm on the ground,” an English-language version of their joint declaration posted on the website of the Turkish presidential office stated.

In a reference to US support for Kurdish forces in northern Syria, the three countries “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighbouring countries.”

Turkey has been especially outspoken in criticising the US alliance with the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. “I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the [YPG], starting with Manbij,” Erdogan said after the meeting.

He was referring to the northern Syrian city of Manbij, where US troops are deployed alongside Kurdish fighters and which could become the next target for Turkish troops. Erdogan’s military took Afrin, 100km west of Manbij, in an incursion that started in January.

The summit came as the US administration struggled to agree on a strategy after US President Donald Trump called for an early withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 US troops deployed in Syria. His statement contradicted a plan, laid out in January, that called for a permanent US military presence in Syria to counter growing Iranian influence in the country and to block the re-emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Following a meeting between Trump and his national security advisers, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the United States would stay in Syria to defeat ISIS. She suggested that the mission would not be a long-term engagement, saying ISIS was “almost completely destroyed.”

However, there are few signs in Syria that preparations for an impending US exit have begun. The Associated Press reported that US forces in Manbij strengthened their defensive positions outside the city while Erdogan’s statement at the Ankara summit called for their withdrawal.

Getting the United States to leave Syria is “the common point” of Turkey, Russia and Iran, said W. Robert Pearson, a former US ambassador to Ankara who works for the Middle East Institute in Washington. Erdogan had been keen at the Ankara summit to emphasise his insistence that the US leave, Pearson said in an interview.

However, the three countries had no joint plan for Syria beyond a rejection of the US role, Pearson added. “Once we are past that point, the old and persistent rivalries come back into play.”

Some of the differences between the three countries — heirs to empires that frequently waged war against each other for centuries — were visible during the summit. Iranian TV reported that Rohani called on Turkey to hand control of the Afrin region to Syria’s government, a step that would be unacceptable for Turkey. While Russia and Iran have been backing Syrian President Bashar Assad, Erdogan has supported rebels bent on driving Assad from power.

Also, Russian air power and Iran-backed militias have supported Syrian Army offensives in the Idlib and Ghouta regions. Moscow and Tehran are expecting Ankara to take jihadist groups in Idlib under control but Erdogan is concerned about a new wave of refugees to Turkey from Idlib.

The dynamics within the Ankara trio were marked by Russia’s leading role, said Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Marmara University. “Putin is making Turkey dependent on Russia,” Ozkan said in an interview.

The Turkish Afrin operation was possible only with the consent of Russia, whose air force rules the skies over north-western Syria. An aide to Erdogan recently said that Turkey would not have been able to send even a drone to Syria without receiving the green light from Moscow. Putin is careful not to give the Turks everything they want; Moscow does not share Erdogan’s view of the YPG being a terrorist group.

Similarly, Russia is allowing Iran to secure a land corridor from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon but not much more, Ozkan said. He pointed out that Putin aimed to establish Russia as the deciding power over an array of local and regional forces in Syria. “It’s divide and rule, like Russia does in the Caucasus,” he said.