The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are gathering in Tehran, with Ankara’s threat of a new incursion into northern Syria likely to top the agenda. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has both domestic and strategic reasons for the move, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi want to maintain the status quo in Syria, where both their countries have expended significant resources to prop up the Assad regime. Russia’s war on Ukraine will also feature prominently at the trilateral summit. Iran has offered to provide Moscow with drones and Putin and Erdogan are reportedly set to discuss restarting Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea.
USIP’s Mona Yacoubian, Sarhang Hamasaeed and John Drennan examine Erdogan’s threat to initiate a new offensive, why it matters to the United States, and the impact of the Ukraine war on Moscow’s ties with Ankara and Tehran.
Over the past several weeks, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened a new incursion into northern Syria against Kurdish militants. What is behind Erdogan’s threats? How likely is he to get a “green light” from Russia and Iran to move forward on this?
Yacoubian: Erdogan’s repeated threat of a new offensive into northern Syria stems from both domestic and foreign policy imperatives. Turkey has underscored its staunch opposition to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria and considers the presence of Syrian Kurdish forces — known as the People’s Defense Units or YPG — on its southern border to be an existential threat. Since 2016, Turkey has undertaken three incursions into northern Syria in pursuit of the establishment of a 30-km (roughly 19 miles) deep buffer zone inside Syria. Ankara considers the YPG as indistinguishable from the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey. A recent uptick in suspected YPG attacks inside Turkish-controlled enclaves in northern Syria has further angered Turkey.
Increasingly, domestic factors also drive Erdogan’s decision-making on a new offensive into Syria. Turkey’s economy is in crisis, marked by nearly 80 percent inflation causing growing hardship for Turkish consumers and deepening anxiety across the country. Turkey’s worsening economic woes are also stoking greater hostility toward the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. With elections looming in 2023, Erdogan likely calculates he can win voter sympathy with another incursion into Syria, at times tying it to an aspirational promise that Turkey will return one million Syrian refugees to Syria.
To varying degrees, both Russia and Iran oppose a new Turkish offensive. Russia holds the most sway on the ground in Syria, and a Turkish move would likely be predicated on a Russian “green light,” however pale. Iran has been more adamant in its opposition to another Turkish incursion, yet continues to focus on a diplomatic resolution. Given the high stakes for Erdogan, he is unlikely to be dissuaded from making at least a symbolic move into Syria. As such, the July 19 trilateral summit could focus on a three-way negotiation delineating the parameters, constraints and timing of a limited Turkish operation, although a last-minute diplomatic resolution could yet forestall another Turkish incursion — at least in the short term.
The United States will not be in the room but has raised objections to any Turkish offensive in Syria. What’s at stake for the United States and more broadly on the ground in Syria should Erdogan make good on his threat?
Hamasaeed: The United States has warned and objects to a Turkish offensive in Syria because it is concerned about the adverse effects of such operation on U.S. interests and stability in north and northeast Syria. The potential Turkish operation would affect areas that are controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S. partner in fighting ISIS, comprised of the YPG as well as local Arab elements. A Turkish operation could force the SDF to direct resources to defend their constituents and associated territories at the expense of anti-ISIS efforts.
ISIS could benefit by seizing the opportunity to attack the SDF and prisons where some 10,000 ISIS fighters are held as well as al-Hol camp, where thousands of ISIS family members are located. Earlier this year, ISIS attacked al-Sinaa prison in al-Hasakah province and managed to free fighters. It took direct U.S. military support to bring the situation under control and recapture most of the prisoners who had escaped. It is a declared objective of ISIS to free its fighters and affiliated family members.
A military operation could also displace thousands of Syrians and further stress communities that are struggling with economic, health and security hardships. Local and regional interlocutors are asking for the United States to stop its NATO partner, but they are also eyeing the summit between Erdogan, Putin and Raisi to see if Moscow and Tehran would prevent or allow the Turkish operation in exchange for securing other interests.
The war in Ukraine has given Turkey more leverage in Syria and beyond with the United States, Russia and Europe. It is expected it would use such leverage to downsize the SDF and Kurdish influence in Syria. Turkey has conducted several military operations in northern Iraq against the PKK and has not shied away from publicly stating its interests in creating a deep security zone along its borders with Syria and Iraq. In the past few years, it has taken incremental steps toward accomplishing that goal. While the United States understands Turkey’s national security interests, it believes a more effective and lasting outcome would come through dialogue and political solution.
The war in Ukraine also looms large as the three leaders meet. Iran has reportedly agreed to provide Russia with drones. How has Russia managed its relations with both Turkey and Iran following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? What will Putin look to achieve in the meeting?
Drennan: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and resultant push by the West to isolate Moscow has driven Russia and Iran closer together, while Russia-Turkey relations have been more complicated. Officially, Putin is traveling to Tehran to meet with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts as part of the Astana process, seeking a settlement to the conflict in Syria. He is also meeting with each bilaterally, as well as Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Putin likely has at least two goals for his meeting with Raisi, who he has met with two other times since January. In the immediate term, he is likely trying to secure military assistance to support the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security advisor, recently went on record to say that Iran is planning to provide Russia with unmanned systems to assist with long-range artillery targeting. Other U.S. officials have stated that the Iranians could begin providing up to 300 remotely piloted aircraft and begin training Russian servicemembers in their use as early as this month.
More broadly, both countries have been isolated by Western sanctions, creating an opening — or perhaps forcing function — for them to improve their relations. Ahead of the visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov noted that the two countries could soon sign a treaty on strategic cooperation, bolstering financial and banking ties in a bid to move away from dollar-denominated trade.
Russia’s relations with Turkey have been fraught. On Syria specifically, both Russia and Iran are united in their opposition to any new Turkish offensive, so Putin will likely push Erdogan on this issue when they meet. Putin and Erdogan may also discuss the contours of a notional deal between Moscow and Kyiv on lifting Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports to allow grain exports to leave. Earlier this month, Erdogan suggested that a deal was close to being reached.
Erdogan’s role as go-between in this proposed deal follows from his role elsewhere in the conflict, where he has sought to play an active role in the Russia-Ukraine peace process. Turkey hosted two rounds of negotiations in Istanbul in March that ended as Russia expanded its offensive in Ukraine. The Turkish president has indicated a willingness to continue playing that role, to little apparent interest from Russia. Ankara has been reluctant to sign on to the broader Western sanctions regime against Russia. At the same time, Turkey has supplied Ukraine with Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles, which the Ukrainian military has used to great effect against Russian artillery and tanks. Putin may attempt to pressure Erdogan into limiting or ending future sales, but Turkey has previously framed the provision of Bayraktars as a private company’s decision, not a state-to-state sale.