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West Sidelined as Russia, Regional Powers Plot Endgame for Syrian War


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a traditional annual cabinet meeting in Moscow, Dec. 19, 2016.

A year ago, it would have been unthinkable that Russia and Turkey could hold cordial talks a day after the gunning down of a Russian diplomat in Ankara.

But Tuesday, there were no public recriminations over the slaying of ambassador Andrei Karlov as Russian and Turkish diplomats met in Moscow with Iranian envoys to produce a proposal for a cease-fire in Syria, part of an unfolding process that has Moscow, Ankara and Tehran working to plot a mutually beneficial end to the war.

Iran and Russia share an interest in ensuring the Assad regime, a long-term ally of both Moscow and Tehran, survives. For Turkey, the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad has taken a backseat to blocking the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Syria, the very existence of which would encourage Kurdish separatists in Turkey itself, say Western diplomats.

Russia, Turkey appear closer

The December 19 assassination of Karlov by an off-duty Turkish police officer and apparent Sunni militant has, if anything, pushed Russia and Turkey closer together, adding greater momentum to a rapprochement between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran that has Western nations alarmed and apparently shut out of a Syrian endgame.

Following the assassination, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “quickly made it clear they see terrorism as the enemy, rather than each other," says Anna Borshchevskaya, who follows Russian policy in the Middle East for the Washington Institute.

Both leaders agreed the killing was "a provocation carried out by someone who wishes to disrupt newly-restored Russia-Turkish ties," she said.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening ceremony of the Eurasia Tunnel in Istanbul, Dec, 20, 2016.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the opening ceremony of the Eurasia Tunnel in Istanbul, Dec, 20, 2016.

Diplomatic reorientation

The eagerness to downplay the slaying by an assassin angry about Russian atrocities in Syria, and the cordiality of Tuesday's meeting between Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers, are the logical outcomes of a diplomatic reorientation that began to unfold in earnest in August when Turkey's Erdogan, who's been increasingly at odds with Washington over Western inaction in Syria and its use of Kurdish fighters in the war against the Islamic State terror group, visited St. Petersburg.

There he signed a pipeline deal and Putin and Erdogan agreed to restore economic ties damaged after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that violated Turkish airspace in November 2015.

Since then, Turkish officials have muted their anti-Assad rhetoric, and Moscow, Ankara and Tehran have taken great care to cement relations, say analysts. Putin was among the first foreign leaders to denounce September's military coup attempt to oust Erdogan.

“The failed putsch also rattled Turkey's relationship with Washington,” said Merve Tahiroglu, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. Turkish authorities already infuriated with Washington over its support for the Kurdish militia, the Peoples' Protection Units, in northern Syria, allege U.S. complicity in the failed putsch, claiming it was orchestrated by U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkey, to little avail, has demanded the cleric is extradited.

“Post-coup, the Turkish government's anti-Americanism is at an all-time high, and ties with the EU are reaching a breaking point as Erdogan continues a heavy-handed crackdown on dissent,” said Tahiroglu.

A challenge to the West

For Putin, the rapprochement is helping a newly assertive Russia determined to challenge Western influence to “continue to project its imperial power in the world," argues David Patrikarakos, author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, and an associate fellow at the University of St Andrews. “While at the same time ensuring that its puppet Assad remains in nominal control of the country, preserving Moscow's naval facility at Tartus in the process,” he added.

Assad's survival now looks almost certain, thanks to Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian regime on the battlefield. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced midweek a consensus among the three countries that regime change isn't the priority in Syria. The Turks got what they wanted in a joint declaration issued Tuesday by the Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers committing their countries to observe the territorial integrity of Syria, meaning no Kurdish state in the north.

But some analysts question how long it will be before differences between Russia and Iran start to emerge, especially over who will wield the greater influence over Syria in the future.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, meets with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, meets with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016.

Secret agreement?

Hamidreza Azizi, a professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, argues that Iran fears Moscow and Ankara may have reached a secret agreement on observing zones of influence in Syria, a fear prompted by Turkey's military intervention in northern Syria. That intervention, operation Euphrates Shield, which is aimed at driving both Kurdish militiamen and jihadists away from the Turkish border, was launched in August just days after Erdogan's St. Petersburg visit, prompting suspicion in Western capitals and Tehran that Putin had given it his blessing.

Another challenge comes with the widespread public disapproval in Turkey of Russian military actions in Syria. Erdogan's main supporters are conservative Sunni Muslims, and they have become increasingly angry at Russia's indiscriminate bombing of fellow Sunnis in Syria.

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