The Middle East has assumed a different shape and structure in recent years. Nowhere is this more visible than in the April 4 meeting in Turkey between Russia, Iran and Turkey. This group has become critical in defining the Middle East. It is not necessarily a cohesive group, and its staying power is uncertain. But for the moment, the United States, formerly the defining power of the region, is moving to the margins, and a new architecture has emerged.
The change was rooted in two events: the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Arab Spring. IS was defeated by U.S. troops and Iraqi Shiite irregular militias. The Iraqi militias were supported and in many cases led by the Iranians, who are also Shiites. When IS shattered, the Iranians gained a dominant role in shaping Iraqi foreign policy.
The second event was the Arab Spring, which triggered an uprising in Syria in which the majority Sunni population challenged the Alawite regime in Damascus. A brutal civil war ensued, with a constellation of Sunni factions – from IS to al-Qaida – and pro-Western factions fighting each other and the regime. The war drew in Russian and Iranian forces supporting the Alawites and U.S. forces trying to forge an effective, moderate coalition. The Turks, hostile to the Alawites, bided their time.
Despite the fact that it had no overwhelming interest in Syria, Russia intervened to demonstrate that it could project military power and shape events outside its near abroad. The Iranians, on the other hand, had long been allied with the Alawites and had a substantial presence in Lebanon through their client Hezbollah, which was fighting in defense of the Assad regime. Moscow’s intervention created a common interest between Russia and Iran.
The Turks, who are Sunni, took the opposing side, against the Assad regime. The Turkish government has grown increasingly Islamic since it survived an attempted coup in 2016, so it naturally sided with the Sunni resistance, but equally important, it sees Iran as a rival in the region. Turkish history also contains numerous conflicts with Russia, and during the Cold War the Turks were closely allied with the U.S. against the Soviets. Relations with Russia grew especially tense after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that it said had violated its airspace. The Turks eventually were drawn into Syria because of their longstanding conflict with the Kurds, whose independence movement is considered in Ankara to be a threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey.
This should have made the U.S. and Turkey allies; both wanted Assad out and both considered Russia and Iran to be their rivals. But the U.S. was in the process of dramatically shifting its strategy. During and after the Cold War, the U.S. strategy was to use economic and political means to shape the world and, failing that, use direct military power. Since the end of World War II and the decline of British power in the region, the U.S. had become a defining presence in the Middle East, with periodic military involvement. After 9/11, periodic military involvement turned permanent, and for a decade and a half, the United States fought extensive military operations. On a global basis, this constant military activity was untenable. Even worse, in the Middle East its military activity was ineffective. The war in Iraq dragged on without a clear, strategic, attainable goal.
Inevitably, the U.S. took up the hard work of clarifying its foreign policy and defining its interests. The suppression of terrorism was one of its goals, but the use of multidivisional forces with thousands of casualties was not an ideal solution. The U.S. reduced its direct military presence, with the result being that in Iraq, for example, Iran’s presence was more decisive politically than the Americans’. It came to rely on the Iraqi Kurds to advance American interests. So when it was seeking to build a coalition against Assad in Syria, the U.S. naturally allied with the Kurdish communities on the Turkey-Syria border.
The choice to reduce its exposure in the region was not irrational, but it had consequences. The nature of the coalition the Americans tried to build strained relations with Turkey, while placing the U.S. on the margins of events in Syria. Whatever concerns Turkey may have had with Iran or Russia in the long run were overwhelmed by the concerns about the U.S.-Kurdish alliance on the border, and the U.S.-Turkish alliance became even more uneasy.
Cooperation in the Moment
In the end, the future of Syria meant the most to the countries that shared the region with it. Turkey shared a border and saw a Kurdish militia movement growing and gaining combat experience in northern Syria. Iran is engaged in a historic struggle between Shiites and Sunnis and saw in Syria an opportunity to expand its influence. Among the outsiders, the war gave Russia an opportunity to reposition itself as a significant power. The United States got involved to destroy IS and contain Iran, but mostly out of habit. Only upon reflection did the U.S. recognize that its interests in Syria were limited. The Americans’ apparent clumsiness had less to do with competence than with the crosscurrents of a redefined U.S. strategy that was taking shape as the war in Syria raged.
With the U.S. stepping back, the remaining three powers are meeting to consider the next steps in Syria. In the long run, their cooperation is unsustainable. The Turks want to limit Russian power in the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The Iranians remember the Soviet occupation of northern Iran during World War II and see the Turks as a rival. And Iran is also trying to build influence throughout the region – which is welcomed by neither Russia nor Turkey.
But the long run is not right now, and right now they find themselves on common ground. The Russians want to be seen as America’s equal, the Iranians want to fill the vacuum the Americans left, and the Turks want the U.S. to break with the Kurds. There is no common understanding of what should happen in Syria – that’s what they are trying to figure out – just that the U.S., even as it draws down its forces and interest in the region, remains the power to play off against.
Rationalizing a great power’s strategy in the short term yields strange results. The Russian-Turkish-Iranian bloc is an example.