Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) shake hands after a press conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on April 3, 2018. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (not pictured) arrived later in the day. Photo: Adem Altan | AFP
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani are in Turkey on Wednesday for a trilateral meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for the topic of Syria.
Before entering the meeting room, there is one thing on which the three men agree: President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw of US troops from Syria is a good thing.
What brings these countries together is largely their antagonism to US foreign policy in the Middle East. Their reasons may differ, though.
To start with, Turkey has been unhappy about the US partnership with the Kurd-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat the Islamic State. Ankara views those fighters as “terrorists” or an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Lack of diplomatic progress between American and Turkish officials to bridge their divergent views in Syria led to Turkey taking matters into its own hands two months ago when it decided to invade the SDF-controlled city of Afrin in Syria. After weeks of fierce fighting between Turkey (and its allied Arab rebels) and the US-backed forces, the border town fell. Turkey now eyes expanding its Syrian footprint to other areas such as Manbij, but the presence of US forces remains a buffer.
The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria. Turkey has welcomed the news of a possible early US departure from Syria because such an action would remove the last shield the Kurdish fighters have. They already lost the Russia barrier in Afrin.
Similarly, Iran shares Turkey’s fear about the rise of Kurdish influence in the Middle East. Because both countries host a restive, sizable Kurdish minority, they would not tolerate the emergence of a Kurdish state.
Pulling US troops out of Syria will also mean the removal of the biggest buffer for Iran (and Russia) to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reassert internal sovereignty in the country. Without US backing, if the Kurds chose to resist Assad’s attempt to reassert control, Syria would witness what has so far been avoided: an ethnic war between Arabs and Kurds.
Turkey has shifted its Syria policy from one that initially prioritized the removal of Assad from power to one whose number one goal is to annihilate the Kurdish forces that US trained and helped to take areas from ISIS. The new policy has made Turkey an acceptable partner for Russia and Iran to participate in negotiations over the future of Syria.