by Mark N. Katz
The recent Warsaw Conference on the Middle East was notable for America’s inability to rally European governments to the anti-Iranian cause that the Trump administration, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been strongly pushing. This U.S. failure in Warsaw stands in stark contrast to the February 14 summit meeting in Sochi between the presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. If nothing else, the Sochi summit showed that Russia’s and Turkey’s willingness to work with Iran in Syria was going to limit the ability of the United States and its anti-Iranian allies in the Middle East to isolate Iran. Further, the two meetings show that while Trump is increasingly at odds with America’s longstanding European allies, Putin is able to work cooperatively with often difficult leaders in Turkey and Iran.
Yet despite the more cooperative tone of the Sochi summit, differences among the Russian, Turkish, and Iranian leaders were evident. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed doubt that the United States really would withdraw its forces from Syria, but President Putin appeared optimistic that Trump would follow through on his pledge to do so. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose phone conversation with Trump in December appears to have prompted the American president to announce that he would pull U.S. forces out of Syria, expressed misgivings about the security situation that would ensue.
More seriously, although Russia and Iran seem keen to attack Idlib, where the last significant anti-Assad opposition is holed up, Turkey’s Erdogan called for caution. Not only has Turkey supported anti-Assad opposition forces now in Idlib, but the refugees generated by a battle for the city are likely to flow into Turkey.
Erdogan regards Syrian Kurdish forces as allies of the Kurdish opposition in Turkey and thus Ankara’s enemies. Indeed, Erdogan’s call for U.S. forces to leave Syria was motivated by his desire to see American aid to the Syrian Kurdish forces cut back drastically or even ended. At Sochi, Rouhani called for the rights of the Kurds to be secured in the future of Syria. Putin, for his part, has long called for the Syrian Kurds to join forces with the Assad regime.
So long as U.S. forces have been in Syria and the United States has allied closely with Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State, Turkey has focused on its discontent over U.S. support for them. With the United States leaving, Turkish discontent with Russian and Iranian support for them may soon come to the fore.
At the Warsaw conference, the United States was clearly upset that European governments were not as exercised about Iran as is Washington and its Middle Eastern allies. Although it criticized the Europeans for not doing enough about Iran, the Trump administration as well as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have not been especially critical of Russia for actually cooperating with Iran. This inconsistency hardly serves to induce the Europeans to be more amenable to the Trump administration position on Iran.
Despite Russia’s ability to collaborate with two governments that the United States has little influence over, it is not clear that Russia is actually in a better position to resolve the Syrian conflict or the Iran vs. Israel/Gulf Arab rivalry. The Sochi summit’s appeal for international humanitarian assistance underlines how Russia is both unwilling and unable to undertake the great power role of financially underwriting a peace agreement like the United States has done for over 40 years since the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Further, Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria (if it actually occurs) may serve to inflame what have been mainly latent differences between Russia, Turkey, and Iran with regard to the various warring parties in Syria.
Still, the United States withdrawing in the hope of causing strife among its adversaries is a risky strategy (if it even is one). If this does not happen and Russia manages to settle the conflict in Syria despite all the remaining obstacles to doing so, many in the Middle East and elsewhere are going to look to Moscow and not Washington for international leadership. But if, in the more likely case, Putin cannot resolve the conflicts in Syria, then their prolongation and intensification won’t benefit Moscow or Washington or, most of all, the long suffering people of Syria.