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Posts Tagged ‘Zarif’

I attended the Valdai Club conference on Russia in the Middle East that took place in Moscow February 19-20, 2018.  During the opening session on the first day, representatives from the governments of Russia, Iran, and Syria all denounced American policy toward the conflict in Syria.  By contrast, they portrayed Russia and Iran as fighting together against terrorism while U.S. actions were seen as supporting it.

Yet while speakers from Russia, Iran and Syria had the same view of the U.S., there was an important difference among them with regard to Turkey.  Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, bitterly denounced Turkey’s recent intervention in Afrin in northwestern Syria.  She described Ankara’s actions as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and accused Turkey of facilitating the infiltration of mercenaries across the Syrian-Turkish border.  She also accused Turkey of not implementing the Astana agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on establishing de-escalation zones in Syria.

The view of Turkey’s role in Syria expressed by both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, though, was quite different.  Both of them portrayed Turkey as a partner in Syria.  Lavrov pointed out that American support for Syrian Kurdish forces has alienated Turkey.  Ankara fears that the more powerful the Syrian Kurds grow, the more powerful that separatist Kurds in Turkey will also become.  For his part, Zarif described Turkey’s anxiety about American support for Syrian Kurdish forces as “understandable.”

Yet despite these more positive views expressed by the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers of Turkey’s policy toward Syria at the Valdai conference, Moscow and Tehran are widely reported to be apprehensive about Turkey’s intervention in Syria.  There have even been reports that Russian forces in Syria have helped transport Kurdish fighters opposing the Turkish incursion to the battlefield.

But if Moscow and Tehran actually share Damascus’s anxiety about Turkish policy toward Syria (even if not to the same degree), why would Lavrov and Zarif downplay their differences with Ankara about it at this conference?

One possibility is that whatever their discomfort with Turkey’s military action in Afrin, Moscow and Tehran may see the opportunity to promote a wider rift between Turkey and the U.S. as simply too tempting to forego.  Since U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds (whom Washington sees as allies against both ISIS and Iranian-backed forces in Syria) is promoting Turkish hostility toward Washington, neither Moscow and Tehran wants to discourage this dynamic by directly confronting Turkish policy in Syria.  And to achieve this “greater good,” Moscow and Tehran are quite willing to ignore Damascus’s denunciation of Turkey’s intervention.

Yet Moscow’s policy may have yet another layer of complexity, as the session on the Kurds on the second day of the conference made clear.  While not directly opposing Turkey’s intervention against them, Moscow appears to be competing with the U.S. for influence with the Syrian Kurds by arguing that they would be better protected from Turkey through allying with the Damascus regime.  This, they argue, would afford Syrian Kurds better protection than relying only on U.S. support, which they see Washington as unwilling to sustain in the long run.

But can Russia really hope to get closer to Ankara by exploiting Turkish-American differences over the Syrian Kurds while at the same time luring the Syrian Kurds away from Washington through offering them a “better” means for resisting Turkey?  These aims seem to be quite contradictory.  But as contradictory as these two aims may be, it is America’s Syria policy that may have encouraged Russian hopes of achieving them.  This is because the U.S. has supported the Syrian Kurds enough to alienate Turkey but not enough to protect them from it, thus giving Moscow the opportunity to simultaneously exploit both Turkish and Syrian Kurdish unhappiness with American policy.

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