On 4th and 5th April, President Erdogan hosted a meeting with President Putin of Russia and President Rouhani of Iran. While the stated goal was to discuss the situation in Syria, the meeting was a clarion call, a warning and a sign of changing times and alliances. The conflux of Russia, Iran and Turkey allows for a political and regional alliance that would stretch its influence and power over more than just Syria, to encompass Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Iraq. If cemented, this new regional alliance could challenge the power balance in the Middle East against the US-Saudi-Isreal axis, as well as open up long-term conflict scenarios in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria for unconventional solutions.
Turkey as the host country and a cornerstone member of NATO is in a calculated yet overdue gamble, a strike for a new set of partners. Their relations with Putin and Russia are not new and in fact that relationship has been growing for the last 3 years. Today Turkey and Russia are not only building a huge nuclear power plant together, Russian naval fleets (military and commercial) have access to the Mediterranean through the Straits of Hormuz and Russian business is developing interests in the through joint partnerships with Turkish entrepreneurs. Turkey’s desire to effect a swift solution in Syria and in Iraq with relation to the longer term violent instability but also with regard to restive minority populations. Most importantly, Turkey and Erdogan feel they have been shirked by the European Union on the question of full membership and are treated like a lesser member of the union of equals. Furthermore as a key frontline member of NATO, Turkey felt “ignored” when they proposed policy options on Syria some 5-6 year ago that, had they been pursued, would have avoided the brunt of the collateral damage in that war.
Lastly with relation to the US, Turkey feels again put down in the scale of importance to Saudi Arabia and even UAE. Not only is Turkey openly denouncing Saudi Arabia as degenerate and regressive leadership of Sunni Islam, they also denounce them for funding and supporting the most vehement Islamic extremist groups in the world. These factors have created a distance between US and Turkey. It has stroked the feelings of being slighted in Turkey and raised the “grievance count”, creating ripeness for new partners and alliances.
Russia, Turkey and Iran condemned ‘attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism’ —a reference to America’s military presence and its partnership with [the Syrian Kurdish group] YPG.
Iran has really only to gain from any agreements with Turkey and Russia, not least in condemning and resolving the genocide in Yemen perpetrated by a coalition including Saudi Arabia and UAE. It also Iran with countermeasures and leverage in case the Iran nuclear deal is ditched by US and its allies. The most signifiant factors is its alliance with Turkey, as the latter is a Sunni country with unblemished credentials; a counterweight to Saudi Arabia and the GCC‘s alleged vendetta against Iran. To be invited by Turkey and to be on the table with them gives Iran a legitimate advantage against their Sunni neighbors. Meeting with President Putin might have been tactically very useful as Iran and Russia can really help each other with medical/economic issues on the horizon, in particular energy cooperation (oil, gas, pipelines). Key cooperation on Syria and Iraq with Russia and Turkey could be the cornerstone of a new alliance that would upend the hegemony of USA’s Middle East policy; most significantly the manipulation of local situations and countries through their client states of Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf.
Russia is forging forward with new alliances that will allow it to reemerge on the global level as a continuing power and power broker. Recent allegations by the UK on usage of chemical weapons have fallen apart without the public presentation of any credible evidence yet a lot of damage have been done to Russian image and soft power; things Putin really cares about. So he is on the rebound. He is cashing in on a sleuth of US-relationships gone wrong – Turkey most importantly. Putin needs to consolidate the growing cooperation with Turkey. Iran is a huge bonus. Alliance with Iran would deliver a new spectrum of possibilities for Russia in economics, trade and energy cooperation. Most of all Russia is gaining important leverage over US, EU and NATO and also coming out of the woods after the UK debacle. Significantly, by so aligning, Russia is eclipsing US power and hegemony in Turkey and in the region.
The ramifications of any emerging alliance between Russia, Turkey and Iran is very important and significant for the Middle East, for EU, NATO and the US. It creates policy options for other countries in the region that do not enjoy so close relations with the US. Most importantly, this emerging alliance eclipses the US’s power in the larger region and gives real options to Sunni Islamic countries to choose an option other than the US-Saudi alliance. The US is not on the table and as an excluded party, their domaine just got more restricted in the region.