Russia, Iran and Turkey held multilateral talks in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday, June 19 under the auspices of the U.N. to discuss the formation of a committee to draft a new Syrian constitution. According to U.N. Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, the meeting ended without a “major breakthrough,” but the parties agreed to meet again in the coming weeks. The new alliance between Moscow, Tehran and Ankara suggests an emerging security axis in the region, however, it will not necessarily be a very stable alliance in the long-term.
The talks included Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Undersecretary Sedat Onal, Russia’s Syria Envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Iranian Foreign Minister’s Special Assistant in Political Affairs Hossein Jaber Ansari. De Mistura said in a statement following the Geneva talks that the meeting included “constructive exchanges and substantive discussions…on issues relevant to the establishment and functioning of a constitutional committee, and some common ground is beginning to emerge.”
The conference occurred following the signing of an accord at the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, Russia in January, which aimed to unite Syria’s warring parties under a single common agreement. The final statement resulted in the formation of a constitutional commission, comprised of government, opposition and civil society actors. The commission, set out by U.N. Resolution 2254, was intended to be the first step in finding a solution to the Syrian War. It has thus far failed to produce tangible results, however. Since January 2017, Tehran, Moscow and Ankara have mediated nine rounds of negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan between the Syrian regime and opposition groups following the December 2016 ceasefire.
While the Iranian, Russian and Turkish alliance is deepening, it appears to be one that has arisen more out of convenience than profound ideological overlap. The countries do not have a history of cordial relations. For much of the last few decades, Turkey allied itself with the United States and was a staunch supporter of NATO. Iran backed Afghan rebels during the Afghan war to push out the USSR and the USSR supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Turkey, furthermore, rejected the Russian annexation of Crimea. Turkey and Russia backed different sides in the Syrian conflict and tensions came to a head in November 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Moreover, the three have divergent long-term objectives in Syria. Turkey continues to oppose the Assad regime and aims to curb Iranian influence in the region, while both Russia and Iran fervently back the Assad regime and reject the notion of any long-term Turkish military presence in Syria. Iran would like to end its political and economic isolation in the wake of continued U.S. economic sanctions and tense relations with the European Union, and in recent years it has formed a close trade partnership with Ankara to compensate.
The trio does, however, appear to agree on two major points. They have agreed to curb Kurdish power within Syria, which is a major sticking point for Ankara. Erdogan’s conflict with the Kurds began in 2015 during the national elections when he lost the Kurdish vote. He has since waged domestic war against the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), blaming the group along with the failed 2016 coup for the continued state of emergency.
The tripartite alliance would also like to see U.S. power checked in the region. A widening rift is forming between Turkey and the U.S., largely due to the U.S. backing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), especially the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey believes is linked to the PKK. Adding to the strain between the U.S. and Turkey, Ankara announced in December last year that it would purchase S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Moscow. In response, a U.S. Senate committee approved a defense bill for $716 billion on May 24 to block Turkey from purchasing Lockheed Martin F-35 jets.
Russian and Iranian adversity to the U.S. is perhaps more obvious. Iran has been slapped with multiple rounds of U.S. sanctions as well as President Trump’s recent withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. It is also threatened by the close friendship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, strained U.S.-Russian relations date back to the Cold War and the countries have most recently diverged on U.S. airstrikes in Syria against the Assad regime, which Russia views as “an act of aggression.” All three members of the Troika also oppose the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
In short, the seemingly deepening friendship between Russia, Iran and Turkey, is in fact a shallow one, based more on the desire to counterbalance U.S. influence in the region. As such, the alliance is likely unstable and may break down once one or more of the three achieve their strategic objectives.