MK, your observations about the shared interest of Turkey and Iran in suppressing Kurdish independence are on point. Logic dictates, though, that both will escalate the conflict in Syria precisely in order to pursue this interest. The sensible and humane thing to do in Syria is to partition the country: let the Assad regime (or its successor) survive as an “Alawistan” in the northwest cost of Syria and the adjacent mountains, with a Sunni entity emerging in the East and center. I do not believe that the United States or Russia would object to this solution. Absent Tehran and Ankara, Obama and Putin could work out a solution to the Syrian problem quickly.
The trouble is that any such partition would make it hard to contain Kurdish separatist ambitions for every long, and impossible to contain them indefinitely. As you observe, Turkey and Iran have the most to lose if the Syrian Kurds assert their independence and link up with their Iraqi brethren.
A related problem is ISIS. This is not the “junior varsity” of President Obama’s infelicitous phrase, but the de facto successor to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led army. It has experienced officers drawn from the Iraqi military as well as parts of the Sunni Awakening sponsored in 2008-2011 by the United States, and an extensive call on manpower given the massive social disruption in the region. Syrian partition under present circumstances would allow ISIS to dominate the Sunni portion of Syria. Turkey might provide assistance to ISIS on the sly, but it cannot be happy with the prospect of an ISIS-controlled state.
That leaves Iran and Turkey no other choice but to escalate in Syria. Of course, they can lettheir proxies kill each other in Syria while they boost trade–this after all is the Levant–but Shia-Sunni conflict may not be so easy to contain. Iran has an enormous investment in Syria, and with the end of sanctions it wll have a great deal more resources to commit to the fighting. Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Timing is important: Iran’s nuclear-deal dividend will be available soon, which gives the Sunnis strong motive to act preemptively.
Reuel Marc Gerecht’s July 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Iran Nuclear Paradox,” argues that the nuclear deal makes a US-Iranian confrontation more likely and more quickly. It is the first piece by Gerecht I agree with, but I would generalize his point: the nuclear deal makes a confrontation between Iran and everyone else more likely, more quickly. I do not know (and I don’t think anyone knows) how this will play out, but it will be instructive to watch.
Balance of power models of the sort that are taught in political science departments remind me of the economic models taught across the quad: They are invariably one-country, one-period models for purposes of simplification. If you internationalize the Keynesian model, you get Robert Mundell’s supply-side economics, and if you extend the Capital Asset Pricing Model to a number of periods, you destroy all of its assumptions. The balance of power in the Middle East may be improved in the very short-term by giving Iran greater status, but the position of every power in the region sits on shifting sands–catastrophic decline of the youthful population in Iran, the shift in demographic weight towards the Kurds in the case of Turkey, and so forth. To the extent that each side positions itself to preempt foreseeable problems, we get an earlier rather than a later confrontation.
Of course you are correct about the economic benefits of peace with Iran. On this I refer you to Norman Angell’s 1910 book The Great Illusion, which argued that economic interdependency made war futile and therefore unlikely. Republished in 1933, it won Angell the Nobel Peace Prize. Such is our longing to see our neighbors act rationally.