The ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran has opened the way to peace talks in Kazakhstan between the Syrian government and opposition. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, will play peacemaker and the timing of the conference will enable participation by the new US administration. However it’s not yet clear how this process might tie in with any putative “grand bargain” between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
But however the US fits in, the rise of a Russian-Iranian-Turkish triumverate is a hugely significant development. On paper at least, these countries are not natural allies. On the contrary, they have a long and distinguished history of rivalry and warfare extending back centuries and stretching into recent decades. During the Cold War, Turkey was a key NATO ally; Iran supported the Afghan rebels against the USSR, while the USSR supported Iraq against Iran.
But after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia’s relations with both countries greatly improved. Iran’s opposition to Russia during the Chechen wars of the 1990s was muted; Russia was worried about external ideological influence over its largely Sunni Muslim population, but it feared Saudi Arabian Wahhabism far more than it did Iranian Shiite influence.
More than that, Russia has kept up close relations with both sides in regional rivalries. This means consistently engaging with Iran economically even as it seeks to contain Iranian influence in the longer term, and maintaining good relations with countries for whom Iran represents a direct threat, in particular Israel, but also Saudi Arabia.
Back and forth
Russia’s relationship with Turkey has been more intense, but no less contradictory. Turkey has opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but also signed up to the TurkStream pipeline to Russia, a natural gas supply route under the Black Sea that will bypass and weaken Ukraine.
The two countries’ backing for different sides in the Syria conflict strained relations. The breaking point came when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015. However, that crisis paradoxically showed the degree to which Turkey’s relations with the West had weakened. Friendly relations were restored in June 2016, and consolidated by Putin’s unconditional support for Turkish President Erdoğan after an attempted coup.
The war in Syria and anti-Russian protests in Turkey over Aleppo did not detract from the re-energised official friendship. Both Russia and Turkey went to great lengths to prevent the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara from scrambling their alliance.
Turkish-Iranian relations, meanwhile, have traditionally alternated between co-operation and competition, but since the “Arab Awakening” protests of 2011, competition has been the dominant mode. As Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has turned away from the secular, modernising values of Atatürk, the republic’s founder, so rivalry with Iran has been less on grounds of political ideology (secular versus theocratic) and more about identity (Sunni versus Shia).
However, the fear of an Iranian-dominated “Shia crescent” predates the founding of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Like Russia’s earlier criticisms of Turkey’s “neo-Ottomanism” and the West’s concerns over of Russian “Eurasianism”, the fear is of a resurgence of an imperial project.
This is the paradox at the core of the Russia-Turkey-Iran triad: their longtime geopolitical competition motivates not only their periodic conflicts, but also their cooperation.
All three were empires long before they became nation-states. Like the Western empires, but unlike China, they have lost much of the territory they previously ruled. However, the reduction in scale was less radical than that of the Western European empires and they retain (both by default and design) elements of their former imperial role. The imperial past was less repudiated than in the West, but remains a prominent part of their national psychologies.
All three states were strongly influenced by the West, but none was ever completely under Western rule – and nor did the West ever completely accept them. All three saw top-down attempts at modernisation and Westernisation give way to anti-Westernism and reversion to what were seen as more traditional forms of political culture. Turkish scholar Ayse Zarakol has written about how resentment at being “excluded” from the West influences these countries’ self-image and foreign policy, but these “irrational” factors tend to be ignored by mainstream international relations scholars.
In Turkey, as in Russia and Iran, politics and foreign policy are largely defined by the ambiguous relationship with the West and globalisation, and their common experiences mean they can understand each other’s behaviour and concerns rather well. With that advantage, they can move rapidly between conflict and cooperation.
Since all three countries are worried about restive territories that might secede, they have a common interest in preventing the formation of Kurdistan. Similarly they have a common interest in resisting regime change or state break-up in their respective regions – that is, unless they’re in control of the process.
This was just the sort of relationship enjoyed by the European great powers of the 19th century: competition, but with an interest in each other’s survival so long as no single power becomes dominant. They might wage war or weaken each other by supporting rebellions, but they’ll close ranks against separatism and instability when it doesn’t suit them.
Perhaps the best example is Russia, Prussia and Austria’s “Holy Alliance” to protect themselves from what they saw as destabilising ideas and influences. Never a particularly strong bloc, this trio nonetheless had some success in suppressing the failed revolutions of 1848. The alliance was later relaunched as Bismarck’s Three Emperors’ League. In the event, Germany was unable to prevent conflict between Russia and Austria-Hungary in the Balkans; the league dissolved, and its failure led indirectly to World War I.
A club of internally competing powers was less dangerous than the subsequent division of Europe into two opposed and coherent alliances, and it’s not such a bad parallel for the reinvigorated triumvirate on Europe’s south-eastern flank. Provided the alliance stays relatively loose, it might well restrain the actions of its members. But if it becomes a full-blown compact, the consequences could be unpredictable.