Mahmoud Shoori, head of Eurasia Program at Center for Strategic Research (CSR) and senior fellow at IRAS, sat down some days ago with IRAS for a lengthy interview about recent developments in the Russian-Turkish cooperation for the Syrian crisis. This interview has been edited for clarity.
While it seems the negotiations among Iran, Russia and Turkey are deemed as trilateral ones, the recent developments showed Iran is excluded from the negotiating table. From the beginning, it appeared that Russia is eager to work with Iran on the battlefield, but is reluctant to give Tehran a role in the political negotiation. What is your opinion about that?
"It is natural for Russia to consider herself superior in the negotiations, because she thinks, as a member of the Security Council, she has much more tools and facilities. Based on the type of relationship Russia has with all parties involved in the Syrian crisis, it is possible for Moscow to have the upper hand in the negotiation process, and be able to negotiate with all parties. Naturally, Iran, who can neither negotiate with the US, nor can directly negotiate with the opposition groups and states such as Saudi Arabia, does not have such an opportunity. Perhaps the only opportunity for Iran is that she can negotiate with Turkey in certain circumstances. So the Russian consider they have the upper hand in negotiations. They approach Iran more on operational fields. They think that Iran enjoys a series of capabilities and facilities that can be used in operational fields. Russia has talked to Iran wherever there are fighting scenes. But now that the Syrian crisis has entered a new chapter, and the process of resolving the crisis has begun, of course, Russia tries to somehow show her leading position and role.
"Since a debate on negotiations between Russia and Turkey began, the concern was that what Iran’s position would be in the interaction and negotiation that is ongoing between Russia and Turkey, and what role Russia is considering for Iran in these negotiations. Perhaps if it was just left to the Russian, they were not that much interested in bringing Iran to the political negotiations. They are more interested in doing the negotiation themselves on behalf of Assad’s pro-government front. Before Turkey, the US, on behalf of the opposition, was considered the Russian negotiating party. Now for some reason, the US has left the scene, and Turkey has entered it. On the other hand, it seems that Turkey has more maneuvering room and more ability to influence operationally than the US, and the Russian are taking this opportunity. Russia, using the climate created after the rapprochement with Turkey, has been trying to push negotiations towards her desired target.
"I think Iran’s concerns are understandable in this regard, since she has used all her capabilities in the theater of operations, so she is not willing to lose in the political sphere what she has earned with difficulty in the theater of operations. On the other hand, though the considerations and concerns of Russia in many fields overlap with those of Iran, in many ways they may be different, or the Russian approach to the conditions of the future of Syria and the existing conditions may be somehow different with that of Iran. So it is natural that these differences affect the type of negotiations."
One of the issues arising here is the bilateral and regional relationship of Russia and Turkey. It seems the bilateral and regional trend between these two states is not logical. The fluctuations in their relations are eye-catching. In your opinion, based on what reasons, Russia turns to Turkey? And indeed does the Russian-Turkish cooperation bring about the perceived results and objectives?
“Russia has a series of concerns, goals, and interests in Syria which determine the priorities of Moscow, and that how Russia will meet and obtain them rank next in importance. When Russia entered the Syrian crisis, her goals and interests in Syria were highly at risk. It does not seem unlikely that if Russia had not got involved, she would have had no place in Syria now. In this process, it is of secondary importance for the Russian with whom and how they work. Were they able to meet their goals and interests with the US, they would do so. Were they able to advance their goals and plans with Iran, they would do so. Now if they can advance their goals and plans with Turkey, they will do so. This in itself is not wrong for any state. Any state will do the same; particularly, a major power like Russia which has more maneuvering room at international and regional levels. But in relation to Turkey, the Russian have some requirement as well. After the crisis in Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions against Russia, the Russian sought to alleviate some of the economic pressures through their economic interaction and also economic cooperation in the field of energy with Turkey.
“Russia intends to both provide her own economic needs, and diversify her energy routes to the West through her economic interaction with Turkey not to face any problem under European governments’ pressure. That is the reason behind the Russian-Turkish great relationship which was quite at a high level in economic and political terms before the Russian plane crashed. However, perhaps that plane crash was a shock that the Russian not only did not believe it, but also did not imagine that they would face such a problem with Turkey whom they were enjoying such high level of relations, both politically and economically. At the same time, many people had the impression that this conflict can be resolved quickly, as both Russia and Turkey needed each other, and as seen, the Turk apologized after what happened, and it was quickly accepted by Russia, and the relationship between them reached to both sides’ expected and desirable level. But in relation to Syria, if so much did not happen in Turkey and Syria, in my opinion, it was difficult for Turkey and Russia to achieve this level of closeness on the issue of Syria. However, the circumstances provided the ground for them to be able today to sit around a table.
“The attempted coup in Turkey and the subsequent events, and then the defeat of the forces opposing Assad in Aleppo, all contributed to having Turkey inevitably reconsider her policies on Syria, and this created an atmosphere in which diplomatic interactions with Russia were made. I think both Russia and Turkey are now in conditions that they assume they can share interests in Syria, if there is some level of interaction between them. Now we see the two states are actually sharing the interests. In the town of al-Bab, the Russian acted somehow like the Turkish Air Force. This means that both Turkey and Russia have concluded that the continuation of the Syrian crisis can create more problems for both sides. Russia is no longer willing to spend political, military and economic costs on Syria, and, on the other hand, Turkey is also suffering from the crisis. That is why the two sides came to the conclusion that they should have some level of interaction with each other, and share the interests. But two issues should be considered for Iran in this regard. One, where the Iranian position is in this division of interests, and whether Iran is ignored in this issue. Second, whether this spirit of interaction between the two sides will remain or not.
“On the first issue, Iran, with her influence and/or intervention in the theater of operations and her bilateral cooperation with Russia, could enter into negotiations done by Turkey and Russia, and the trilateral talks among Iran, Russia and Turkey in Moscow meeting took place. So far, it seems that the three sides are trying, by talking to each other, to achieve a common vision on the future of Syria. Naturally, they do not have the same capabilities in the negotiation process, and are not equipped with equal flexibility and interaction. What the Iranian side can negotiate on is very limited, and this, somehow, makes Iran’s work difficult, because from the beginning, she has been trying to stabilize the Assad government in Syria. This goal has been achieved to some extent; however, the future of the Assad government is an important issue which, I think, is not very clear. The issue that to what extent Iran can reach a consensual agreement with the Russian and Turkish parties on the future of the Assad government is still an open question, so this makes the situation a bit difficult. But the situation is different for the Russian and Turk who can offer much to each other.
“Russia can provide some interests for Turkey, and the Turk can ensure some interests for the Russian as well. This makes the interaction terms among the three parties different. But on the issue that where the future of the interaction between Turkey and Russia leads to, it should be noted that although both sides are willing to work together, interact with each other, and willing to bring the Syrian issue to a conclusion, in my opinion, they should not be too confident that it always goes the same way. It is likely that opponents of the Assad government consider themselves as victims of the Russian and Turkish interactions, and try to disrupt the game. If that happens, the situation will also change. On the other hand, the Assad government is also an actor who wishes to survive, and tries to maintain itself. Naturally, the Assad government still tries, somehow, to have its own degree of influence. For this reason, neither Turkey can guarantee to completely control opponents as Russia wishes, nor can Russia guarantee to keep Iran and the Assad government in her front as Turkey desires. At least the Iranian side is not bound to this issue, if the conditions for political negotiations are not favorable to her. Therefore, a minimal interaction among the three states can be talked of. But there is no guarantee for this, and whenever one of the parties feels she is vulnerable to further losses, she can completely disrupt the game. In that case, the interactions will undergo serious changes.”
About the type of cooperation between Russia and Turkey, there is one viewpoint stating that Russia perhaps thinks it can have more leverage over Tukey, than the US, in the process of negotiation. As you said, inclusion of Turkey to the negotiating table helps to persuade the rebels for political talks. Do you agree?
“On the relationship between Russia and Turkey, we cannot say which one has the upper hand. Each party needs the other side for some reason, and each has a series of tools at their disposal. Both sides know they will benefit, if they reach a tangible and an acceptable outcome, and solve the problem as soon as possible. The Russian do not want to be more engaged, or interfere more in Syria. They intended to finish the crisis within a few months, but they have been in Syria for a year. There is the international pressure on them, and they worry that this would affect their future relations with the Trump government. All this makes the situation hard for Russia. On the other hand, it is also the same for the Turk. Turkey, due to her damage from the Syrian crisis, wishes to bring this issue to a conclusion. So both sides have enough desire and motivation to interact with each other, and they both have some tool and resource at their disposal to interact with each other.
“Up to this stage, there is not much problem. But, as mentioned, there are a series of actors who may disrupt the Russian-Turkish game, if they feel like they have much to lose. The more Turkey and Russia can expand the scope of this game, and convert it from a bilateral interaction to a multilateral interaction, naturally, the more will be the chances of success for these negotiations and interactions. But if the Russian and the Turk assume that they can achieve their goal through bilateral cooperation, and possibly through the circumvention of some players, they will sure face some trouble at a point. I wonder if both Turkey and Russia are much interested in this method, and think that they can only solve this problem through bilateral interactions, and can simply convince or force others to accept their decisions. Of course, this process will not happen. In the meantime, actors like the US and the Trump government are not yet engaged in this issue, and it is not clear what this government thinks in this regard. One issue is whether the Trump government will be willing to enter this game or not. The other is that if the US new government wants to be engaged in the Syrian crisis, which side will benefit more. The issue of Kurds should be paid attention to as well. They also play a part in the interactions, and can make a difference in their type.”
Given the UN Resolution 2336, could Russia and Turkey reach an undisclosed agreement for a temporary cooperation?
“It seems to me that it is not very important, for example, whether Iran’s name is mentioned in resolution 2336 or not, or that talks between Turkey and Russia is now focused upon. I think their talks can go ahead as bilateral as well. But since it is supposed not to spend each other’s money, this will not be a problem. The Russian and the Turk can talk to each other, and come to an agreement about some of the issues. In fact, Iran and Russia could have been the sides doing so. Iran and the Syrian government may do so as well, or Iran may also talk with any other actor. But these talks can be disturbing when the agreement between the two parties has some cost and damage for the third party. Then it will be difficult to handle the situation. Russia and Turkey know that if they want to come to an agreement in which the interests of Iran and other actors are not considered, this agreement can be easily broken, and conditions can change. Practically, all parties have so many tools that they can disrupt the other side’s game.
“So the reason dictates that if any positive process is going to occur in the Syrian crisis, it should take place with the participation of all parties while taking into account the minimum issues each party considers for itself. Given that the situation in Syria is very fragile, no party has the upper hand; each party has some tool at its disposal. That is why it is essential to reach a multilateral agreement to have this crisis resolved in the future. Even Russia and the US, above Turkey, cannot just hold bilateral talks to resolve the Syrian crisis, let alone Russia and Turkey.”
To what extent, do you see Turkey’s operation in the Northern Syria as a kind of agreement between Ankara and Moscow?
“The discussion on northern Syria and the type of actions Turkey undertook in this area is certainly a strategic issue for the Turkish troops, and is considered one of those minimum issues the Turk think must be guaranteed for them in any negotiation. From the beginning of the crisis, Turkey was trying to define a safe zone in northern Syria. First they tried to do so with the help of the US, but it failed. Now they are doing that with the help of Russia. This is natural, because the crisis is on the borders of Turkey, and she wants to define a strategic depth along her borders, and have some influence in some areas. The Turks feel that insecurity is transmitted from those areas to Turkey. So, this is a minimum issue that the Turks insist on it.”
“The other side, be it the Syrian government, Iran or Russia, would either consider this minimum for the Turks or not. I think if this is not so, basically the talks may be futile. But if for any reason, and due to the existing emergency situation, parties are more willing to avoid conflict, war, and bloodshed, they may accept this amount of influence or sphere of influence for Turkey. In this case, it will not be much different that Turkey wins this amount of influence with the help of Russia, any other state or by herself. This is the reason why this issue may be of secondary importance for Iran and Russia. But it is possible that this is considered a strategic and vital issue for the Syrian government, and Syria is not willing to accept it. But, I think, this will not be an important problem for the Russian. In the case of Iran, I am not sure what the exact policy of the Iranian government is in this regard, but I do not think Iran will oppose to the presence of an area that has been agreed upon to create a safe zone for Turkey. However, in my opinion, to maintain greater interests, i.e., avoiding more bloodshed, war and destruction, Iran can accept any agreement between Russia and Turkey in relation to northern Syria, apart from the Kurd who are also an important factor, because it is possible that they try to change the game.”
You mentioned Turkey could secure some interest of Russia. What are these interests?
“Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Turkey has been one of the opponents of Assad. Had the Turk not opposed the Assad government, or had not asked for the overthrow of his government, probably this crisis would not have occurred. In fact, since the Turkish government has been seeking to overthrow the Assad government, Turkey is considered as one of the main reasons and variables for the emergence of crisis in Syria. In other words, Turkey’s behavior has turned the Syrian crisis from a domestic issue in Syria to a regional and an international issue. If the Turk still want to persist on this issue, clearly this will make the situation a bit difficult for Russia and Iran. If the level of emphasis Turkey puts on this issue changes, naturally both Russia and Iran would have fewer problems. So, if Turkey changes her rhetoric, and in practice does not try to overthrow the Assad government, this can serve as a guarantee. In addition, many of the [opposition] groups receive their political, military, and economic support from Turkey. It is natural that Turkey, with her control over many of these groups, can define the presence or absence of Russia in Syria. That is why, I think, the Turk can guarantee some interest for Russia in Syria, and from now on, the role of Turkey can be defined in ensuring the Russian interests.”
What future would you anticipate for the cooperation of Russia-Turkey with the West? Another key question is whether Ankara is getting distance from the West?
“I do not think that Russia considers Turkey as distinct and separate from the West in the Syrian crisis. In any case, the US is still reluctant to enter the Syrian crisis, and her willingness has decreased more toward the end of Obama’s presidency, and there is no sign that Mr. Trump wants to get involved in Syria. So it seems that Russia thinks any kind of deal with Turkey either will be supported by the West or will be indifferent to the West. It makes no difference for the West whether or not this issue has been agreed upon, and certainly they will not oppose it. I think the Russian negotiate assuming that any kind of agreement resulting from talks between Turkey and Russia will not be opposed by the West.”
What are the strength and weakness of Iranian-Russian cooperation? What results does this cooperation bring about for Iran?
“Iran and Russia have undertaken joint actions in Syria, and have followed common goals. These common goals are still ongoing, but it is not clear whether they will be continued after the Astana meeting or not. But at least until the Astana meeting, there has been much overlap between the Iranian and Russian common goals in Syria, and both sides have helped each other. This is a part of the discussion, meaning Iran has undertaken some action in Syria, and advanced some issue. Russia has felt that these measures have been in her favor as well. In return, Russia undertook some action in Syria that Iran thought they were in her favor. So far, conditions have showed this as well. The Assad government is now at its best since the onset of the crisis. Both Iran and Russia managed to liberate Aleppo together and with the help of the Syrian government forces. All this suggests that this has been a successful partnership. It is successful on this period, but this does not mean that the conditions will go the same way in the next period, or that their requirements at this period will be continued in other periods as well.
“Each period has its own requirements and conditions, and that is why it should not be assumed that since Iran is cooperating with Russia, or Russia is cooperating with Iran in Syria, they will necessarily accompany each other to the end. They have walked together, worked together and advanced together on some part of the way. They have taken the same path, but Russia and Iran may separate from each other at a point. Of course, this separation between Iran and Russia on the issue of Syria is not so wide to pit them against each other, or incur strategic losses for Iran. Neither will Iranian behavior incur strategic losses for Russia in the future, nor will Russia’s actions in the future incur strategic losses for Iran. But there is also no requirement that while Iran and Russia shared the same path on the operational phase, they will share the same path on the process of political negotiations as well. However, Iran has a series of tools and resources, and uses them to achieve her goals. The Russian are doing the same as well. But the stage after reaching an agreement will have its own requirements and, according to the conditions of that time, relations between Iran and Russia should be talked of. However, bilateral issues play a separate role in relations between Iran and Russia, and have their own requirements.”
Will Russia respect Iran’s role and status in the future of Syria?
“It is not Russia that defines the Iran’s role in Syria - Russia has not already defined it, and will not define it in the future as well. Iran does not ask anyone for her role. She has some tool, influence and facility in Syria, and this level of influence still exists. It is others who need to see what they are defining for the future of Syria due to the existing facilities and capabilities can encompass Iran or not. In fact, it is more their problem, so Iran should not be too worried about whether Russia would give her a role or not, and should not worry about whether Iran is the subject of the deal in the possible negotiations between Russia and Turkey or not. Of course, if they imagine that Iran could be the subject of the deal, certainly there will be a kind of naivety in this matter. Reason dictates that they should consider Iran’s issues and concerns in this discussion as well. If the Russian are not willing to do so, committing the same mistake the Turk did on the Russian aircraft, and they were forced to make up with Russia after a while, this will happen in the case of Russia and Iran as well.”
For the sake of bilateral cooperation, how can Iran could grab the attention of Russia to itself?
I think the problem statement should be, somehow, changed. It should be assumed that every state relies on her own capabilities and facilities in the Syrian crisis, and those of the other side are something that can be present or not. If they are available, so much the better, and if not, no main challenge should be raised for Iran. For this reason, believing that the kind of influence Iran exerts in Syria is a game defined by the presence of Russia is not considered as a correct problem statement. Because Iran would have continued the type of her game in Syria in the same way even if Russia had not engaged in this crisis on the Iranian side, and she had been on the opposite side. But in that case, it was possible that more problems and difficulties would have been created for Iran. But now that Russia has been engaged in Syria, [and is on the Iranian side], Iran has less problems. But it is yet possible that Russia may not be present at some point, and then there will be more problems for Iran again. But this does not mean that Iran has defined the type of her game in Syria based on the facilities and capabilities of Russia that in case of their absence, she would face some problem. My impression is that Iran is pursuing a set of goals, directions and policies in Syria, and these goals and directions are not subject to any other state. If a state is in line with Iran, so much the better, and if not, she can say ‘goodbye’, and continue her own work. Therefore, defining the role of Iran in Syria, according to the definition of the role of Russia, in my opinion, will lead Iran almost nowhere, and there will be always a concern for the Iranian over whether Russia will sell them. Can Russia be trusted? And other similar questions will be raised for Iran. In fact, the presence of Russia on the issue of Syria should be basically considered as a support for Iran, rather than as a matter that her life and policies are based upon.
If Iran and Russia reach a disagreement on the future of President Bashar Assad, how it would affect the scenarios for the Syrian crisis?
“One of the next issues is the Assad government that will determine many issues. It has defined so far many axes, friendship, enmities, and coalitions, and will still do so in the future. Certainly, the kind of fate that is defined for the Assad government can affect the Iranian relations with Russia, Turkey and any other state. I think this is an issue that the Islamic Republic of Iran might not have given it much thought. What can be her alternative for this issue? Iran has not really thought about the issue of Syria without Assad, and she is not willing to do so till the presidential elections are held in Syria. This, on the one hand, could be a disadvantage, and, on the other hand, is her standing point. We cannot much discuss on her position in this regard. That is why I think that the future of the Assad government will determine many issues. Can Iran find a mechanism that takes Iran, Russia, Turkey and the central government in Syria to a common point? I think it is very difficult, and the Iranian are willing to postpone thinking about this matter until presidential elections are held in Syria. Time will tell how the situation will play out. Is it possible to face an integrated Syria at that time in which all Syrians can participate in a completely democratic election, and hold the elections or not? However, these are issues for which no one, including me, can give any specific answer in Iran.”
Remaining the President Assad in power is a red line for Iran and Assad, himself. If Russia to intend to cross this defined redline one day, will Moscow stand in front of the Syrian government and its allies?
“For the Russian, their interests they have defined for themselves in Syria and the maintenance of their base in there are important. Of course, if the Russian want to think about a post-Assad Syria, they must also define the mechanism to achieve it. Certainly, they are not seeking to achieve a post-Assad Syria through confrontation with Assad. It is possible that their support for the Assad government be reduced or discontinued, but a weakened Assad government could undermine Russia’s interests as well. How will Russia secure her own interests in Syria? [It seems that] another state should guarantee that the Russian base in Syria will be maintained. The Russian certainly are not looking for leaving the Assad government alone, and not supporting it politically, saying that they will talk with any state engaged in this issue now. They will not accept such a risk to discuss with the successor to the Assad government about this. If they think about the post-Assad Syria, there must be a consensus mechanism, meaning a mechanism that the Assad government and its supporters like Iran and possibly other actors and Turkey will accept it. It is difficult to find this mechanism, and perhaps, it can be said that to the extent that it is hard for Iran to think about a post-Assad government, it will be hard for the Russian to create a mechanism that not only guarantees the interests of Russia after Assad, but also is agreed upon by the Assad government as well as by states such as Turkey.
“So, the issue that how this transitional government will be created that both guarantee the interests in the future, and that it is accepted by the Assad government have made this equation very complex. And this makes the situation a bit difficult, unless one of the parties voluntarily backs off. This means that either Assad should accept not to be a presidential candidate, or the Baath Party should play no role in the future of Syria. It is unlikely that the supporters of the Assad government in Syria are willing to easily sacrifice their interests, and accept anyone else after years of fighting. They sure will want to have some level of their influence ensured in the future government. In fact, Iran and Russia can define their own interests on this level of influence. At the end, the supporters of the Assad government are supposed to share and be involved in the next government. It is not like that, after all this fighting and conflict, the supporters of the Assad government play no role in the next government. I think Iran and Russia agree on the issue that the supporters of the Assad government should still have a serious role in the political future of this state. This issue guarantees some level of interests for both sides. However, it is a little hard to debate about the future of Syria. Not only Iran, but also all parties involved prefer to define their next steps and go forward based on the existing conditions. It is unlikely that any state can define her own long-term perspective, and insist that she must get to that point. Time will tell how this stormy sea changes conditions. Iran should define her policies based on the existing conditions. Of course, this does not mean she has no strategy, but it means the operational tactics are determined based on field conditions.”
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