The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran convened for a summit in Ankara on April 4 ostensibly to discuss Syria. (Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani). Most pundits noted two salient inferences, that the US was conspicuously absent and the conclave would lead to nothing longterm since the countries involved had divergent goals in Syria. Ergo the whole thing served as little more than a grand photo-op. Which is perfectly accurate but grievously incomplete as a functional assessment of the summit's purpose and outcomes. It's true that realities on the ground make it almost impossible for any single actor or combination of them to resolve the overarching puzzle of Syria. Still convergences of interest do exist between the three participants and outcomes there will be.
What convergences? The Kurds for one and Israel for another should pay close attention. But let's first pause to note the significance of President Trump's comments ahead of the summit -- that it's time for the US to get out of Syria and that allies should pay for any continued US presence there. The initial remark deflated any criticism about America's loss of strategic influence and the second attributed it to frugality. Problem is, only the Saudis can afford to foot the bill for continued significant US involvement and they gave up on Washington years ago. George W Bush vouchsafed power to the Shiite majority in Iraq then Barrack Obama didn't do the same for majority Sunnis in Syria. Result: Shiite domination of the region with Iran's help. No wonder the Saudis have embraced Israel.
Back to Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani. Iran and Turkey agree on one central goal: curbing Kurdish leverage along and inside their borders. Erdogan's animosity began when Turkey's Kurds rejected his AK party in the 2015 national elections, which expunged his majority and almost derailed his migration from Prime Minister to President. He has never let up on them since on either side of the Turkish border. Enmity toward Turkey's Kurds served a domestic political purpose sparking internal strife which gave Erdogan the unity votes in the following election. With the inexorable logic of such policies, for security at home the army had to fight the Kurds in Syria. The country being at war, any and all domestic opposition could be prosecuted for abetting terrorists. That is, when they were not accused of abetting Gulenists. The latter have always functioned as a code term for alleged Fifth Columnists managed by the US or Israel. Iran, lacking Gulenists, tends to view the Kurds as potential handmaidens of outside interests, not least in Iraq and Syria where Tehran is busy projecting power.
Erdogan has been allowed to take Afrin without too much interference from outside. But a push on to Manbij will likely confront him with resistance from all sides. He has always wanted that swath of territory included in a kind of safe enclave dependent on Ankara, in essence an extension of Turkish territory prised from Syrian soil, bristling with Sunni fighters ready to martyr themselves against Shiites and Assadists. He asked the US to support his project repeatedly. The US baulked. Too many Ankara-backed rebels were too militantly Islamist. Washington went with the Kurds instead, but dropped them when Turkish troops geared up to attack. The Israelis, too, left them to their fate calculating the softness of US resolve and the potential overstretch of Israel's capabilities.
But things may change if Erdogan grows too ambitious. The US is saying it will uphold Manbij -- if it stays around long enough. You will likely also see Iranian pushback to Turkish expansion in general. Sunni jihadists recruited worldwide flowing in, getting trained and swelling in number pushing the enclave outward and finally bursting forth -- sounds a lot like ISIS. It offers a juicy opportunity for Iran to raise the banner of Arab, yes Arab, nationalism against the old Ottoman colonizer -- rather in the way that Iran gains pan-Islamic legitimacy by acting as patron of (Sunni) Hamas in Gaza. Or equally you may yet see a Saudi-US-Israel initiative ostensibly to revive the Kurds' resistance to Iran/Hezbollah/Assad while dealing a check to Ankara's ambitions in area. If he meant anything by it at all, this is probably the scenario that President Trump was invoking when he spoke of regional allies paying for US involvement.
Moscow's interests? There's the obvious answer of upholding Assad in power. No less important would be the spectacle of Moscow regaming old contests against the US only this time coming out on top. In 1972 Anwar Sadat kicked out Soviet advisors from Egypt and invited in the US. Erdogan seems about to furnish a replay of that drama in Turkey with Moscow the winner. Russian S-400 missiles are on order, no doubt with advisors attached, and there's talk of Nuclear Power plants from Moscow. Draw a wide line using three fingers from Tehran to Beirut and you will encompass an entire chunk of the Middle East with Washington on the retreat and Moscow ascendant.
Think about Israel too. The continuum from Iran to Lebanon, in effect, gives Tehran a border with Israel via Hezbollah. That we knew already. But it also gives Moscow the same leverage. Why would Moscow want a lever over Israel? To stop Israel from providing strategic assistance to the countries above Iran and below the Russian Caucasus. Georgia and Azerbaijan. Israel wants those countries to stay strong as a spoiler in Iran's backyard. Between them the two Caucasus states also supply the West with non-Mideast oil via the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. I have oft written how the Bush administration refused to supply Georgia with air and ground missiles to resist a Russian invasion before it happened in 2008. And how Israel stepped in to fill the gap.
I reported the 2008 war in situ as the Russian tanks settled across the Georgian border. And I discovered from Georgian officials that, for a year or more, the Israelis too had stopped their supply -- soon after Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in which 55 Merkava tanks got knocked out. A shock to Israeli confidence. And a widespread belief that Hezbollah got the know-how from Moscow. Soon enough, Moscow threatened to resupply Hezbollah if Israel continued providing missiles to Georgia. Israel stopped doing so. (I wrote about all this in the Wall Street Journal back in 2012. )
Among other things, that's what Moscow gets from leverage over Israel. Thus far Israeli regional strategy has fallen short on a number of fronts. They couldn't get the US to help their cause against Iran or in further empowering the Kurds post-ISIS. Border-neighbor Lebanon remains a Hezbollah stronghold. With Mr.Trump ceding further influence to Mr.Putin in the area, Israel's Caucasus outreach hangs in the balance because it's not clear who will stand in the way if Moscow makes a push to reassert power over Tbilisi and Baku. Such are the hidden nuances of the triple summit in Ankara. It's complicated. We need leadership that can handle complicated geostrategy.