Last week’s Istanbul summit between the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents could not have been more unfortunately timed. Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Tayyip Erdogan were not to know when they sat down together on April 4 that six days later, the US, Russia, Iran, Syria, the UK, Britain and Israel would be locked in an eve-of-war clutch over the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb. Had they used a crystal ball, they would certainly have postponed their key conference for determining Syria’s future.
The first intimation of the looming crisis came with the Israel missile attack on the Iranian section of the T-4 air base near Homs on April 9. It was followed by three days of suspenseful preparations on all sides for the US-led operation US President Donald Trump declared to punish Assad.
In the light of this act, the Istanbul summit and its content receded into irrelevance. They tried to agree, for instance on whether the Turkish army in northern Syria should after capturing Afrin advance towards another Kurdish town, Manbij. And should Russia and Iran go along with this Turkish tactic? And how to deal with the northwestern province of Idlib on the Turkish border, which has deteriorated in the last two years into a sanctuary and stronghold for a motley collection of rebel groups, who were driven out of other parts of the country by the combined forces of the Syrian army, the Russian air force, pro-Iranian militias and Hizballah? Who should take control of this lawless region?
And the most burning question of all: Can Russia, Turkey and Iran come up with a collective strategy for opposing the American military presence in Syria?
For Putin, the summit was meant to crown the feat he pulled off in cutting Turkey away from its ties with America and commitment to NATO, after two years of strenuous efforts and the investment of Russian cash and assets, including oil, gas and armaments. But he was fated to see this success fading in the far distance. With the US gearing up for a military showdown with Russia and Iran in Syria, it was no time for Erdogan to parade his affinity for Moscow and Tehran. In any case, it was partly an act to enlist them for his campaign against the Kurds – in Iraq as well as Syria. The new constellation taking form this week saw Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the Turkish leader had sworn to remove, gaining enhanced support from Iran’s military leaders against a US-led offensive.
The Turkish president then faced a dressing-down from Donald Trump, who told him in no uncertain terms to make up his mind on which side he stood – the US and NATO, or Moscow and Tehran. Erdogan had no clear answer and they agreed to talk again.
Iran’s Rouhani was only member of the threesome for whom the Istanbul was not a complete waste of time in the light of subsequent events. The planned US operation in Syria forced Moscow to tighten its collaboration with Tehran in Syria and led to Putin backing away from his friendly ties with Israel.