Ayla Göl
Sep 12 2018

Turkey’s Eastern Allies and Deadlock in Idlib

Last week’s Tehran summit meeting between the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey was the last chance to find a diplomatic solution to stave off a likely Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held province of Idlib, where three million civilians trapped.

But instead, it highlighted the complexity of regional power politics after the end of a bi-polar world order. In the Middle East in particular, the Cold War balance of power has been replaced with multi-polar chaos.

The region has suffered civil wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, leading to massive civilian displacement, and subsequent degrees of anarchy, where neither a regional power, nor an external actor is in full control.

The Tehran summit was symbolic of the search for alternatives to the U.S.-led disorder in Middle East politics since 9/11. As a member of the NATO, Turkey’s position has until recently been predominantly pro-Western. The summit demonstrated Ankara’s shift eastwards towards Russia and Iran.

The alliance between Russia, Iran, and Turkey is a diplomatic show of force against the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in particular. The three countries have been drawn together as Presidents Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip found cause on three issues; the rise of illiberalism, U.S. sanctions and the Syrian civil war.

First, the notion of illiberal democracy and modern authoritarianism is a new game in town. Since Turkey’s political system was transformed into an executive presidency after elections in June, there are growing signs that Erdogan is leaning towards illiberal democratic allies, such as Russia, India and Iran.

Turkey said last month that Russia would deliver the sophisticated S-400 air-defence systems it has ordered in 2019. This sent an important message to Washington that Turkey would purchase weaponry from other allies, especially after Washington withdrew its Patriot surface-to-air missile system (SAM) from Turkish-Syrian border in 2015.

Secondly, Russia, Iran and Turkey have each faced their own version of U.S. sanctions and have each yet to yield to U.S. demands. When Trump disengaged with the ‘smart power’ policy of the Obama administration, it had implications for shifting the balance of power in the Middle East. Trump’s policy changes and the current economic pressure are pushing Turkey towards Russia.

In August, the U.S.-Turkey diplomatic rift reached rock bottom. Erdogan appealed to the Turkish public to boycott American electronic products. Some of Erdogan’s supporters smashed iphones and burned U.S. dollars, powerful images of rising anti-American feelings in Turkey.

Ankara has also said it would trade in local currencies, including the purchase of the S-400s. By posing side-by-side with Putin and Rouhani, Erdogan sent another message to Trump that Ankara has alternative allies, and it is still a significant regional player.

Thirdly, the war in Syria and the ongoing refugee crisis has reached the level of a humanitarian disaster. Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran, have all played major roles in the seven-year war in Syria. In May 2017, the trio designated Idlib as a ‘de-escalation zone’ in the Astana agreement, that called for the end to hostilities in mainly opposition-held zones. Idlib is the last major rebel bastion and the offensive is seen as the final stage of the war.

In Tehran, Putin and Rouhani pressed for a military offensive to retake Idlib, but Erdogan proposed a ceasefire. Putin suggested a ceasefire would be good, but said he did not believe it would hold.

For Moscow and Tehran, retaking Idlib is crucial for a Syrian government victory in the war. But for Ankara, as Erdogan stated, “Idlib is not just important for Syria’s future, it is of importance for (Turkey’s) national security and for the future of the region”.

Erdogan’s concerns are well grounded. If Russia opts for a full-scale offensive in Idlib it could displace as many as 800,000 people, UN officials fear. Turkey already hosts some 3.5 million Syrians, and that number could increase dramatically.

Turkey’s alliance with Russia and Iran has been unsuccessful as it not only served Russia’s interests of undermining NATO, but also left Ankara without allies to deal with Idlib. Turkey is vulnerable to security threats emanating from the Middle Eastern instability. The possibility of being left outside of NATO is dangerous.

Conflicts in Iraq and Syria could easily spread across the borders. Moreover, Turkey’s internal politics are not immune from being drawn into regional civil wars because of the ongoing Kurdish conflict at home. In short, Erdogan’s Turkey has more to lose than gain if Ankara does not play it smart in the new power game of Middle Eastern politics.