Three is company. But if the trilateral dialogue format in international diplomacy seldom produces concrete results, that is because it cannot be sequestered from external influences. Besides, the three participants are bound to have specific interests and priorities. The long-awaited Turkey-Russia-Iran trilateral summit in Ankara on April 4 has been no exception.
The summit didn’t end as a damp squib but its outcome has been measly. Three reasons can be attributed to this. First and foremost, the US President Donald Trump might have been responsible.
The Ankara summit’s main agenda was Syria, but Trump’s “very-soon” remark in Ohio last Thursday introduced a strategic ambiguity into the Syrian situation. And he deepened the ambiguity further on the eve of the summit by stating on Tuesday at a meeting at the White House that he wanted to immediately withdraw US forces from the war-torn country, arguing that the US had already won the battle against the Islamic State.
Trump said, “I want to get out — I want to bring our troops back home. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS.” Trump literally barged into the Istanbul tent and hijacked the mind of the three presidents.
What is the Syria that Erdogan, Putin and Rouhani would discuss – a Syria with open-ended US military presence or a Syria denuded of the Americans? That is now the big question.
Pentagon and White House split on what to do?
Even then, it is very unclear whether Trump himself is free to make up his mind. A former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford framed the paradigm this way: “I have a feeling that there are divided counsels within the Pentagon, definitely in the White House (regarding US troop removal from Syria). Trump sincerely wants to get out since it’s what he campaigned on, but whether he’ll be allowed to by elements of the ‘deep state’ is the question.”
The good thing is that there could be elements within the Pentagon who too who aren’t necessarily happy about an open-ended military presence in Syria without a clear-cut objective. The military mind cannot focus well when there are gnawing doubts.
Second, the disclosure (by the Kremlin first) that Trump has invited Putin to the White House has opened a vista of new possibilities. What if a joint Russian-American peace initiative in Syria gets revived? Trump now becomes a “stakeholder” in a Syrian settlement.
On the contrary, if the trilateral Russian-Turkish-Iranian dialogue on Syria (known as the Astana process) has gravitas today, it is mainly due to the Trump administration’s retrenchment from the Syrian peace process. The dalliance that the Obama administration (secretary of state John Kelly) kept going with the Kremlin (foreign minister Sergey Lavrov) has petered out and what remains today is the military-to-military “deconfliction” mechanism between the US and Russia to ensure that they don’t shoot at each other in Syria.
But, if Trump and Putin breathe new life into a Russian-American joint enterprise to choreograph a Syrian settlement, the Astana process gets relegated to the backburner. Participants at the Ankara summit agreed to hold the next meeting in Astana in mid-May, but much water might flow under the bridge by then.
Decision on Iran deal due by May 12
Third and finally, the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains the “known unknown.” Trump is due to make a decision on the Iran nuclear deal by May 12. And the geopolitics of the Middle East could change dramatically, depending on what he decides to do – especially if Trump were to pull the US out of the JCPOA.
The conventional wisdom is that changes at the US State Department and the National Security Council presage a more hawkish US foreign policy toward Iran. But there are weighty arguments too as to why Trump may not sound the death knell of the JCPOA and opt instead to simply give the nuclear deal a fresh lease of life, as he has done twice already.
To be sure, depending on the state of play in US-Iranian relations, the geopolitics of the Middle East could change and Syria is the theatre where this could see visible impacts in the near-term. So it was notable that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani didn’t go for Trump’s jugular at the Ankara summit. Iran also refrained from pushing any fresh initiatives and seemed more or less happy with a passive role – biding its time and brooding, as it were.
Given the above, what did the summit actually achieve? For a start, trilateral dialogue is always primarily a statement. What emerges from yesterday’s summit on the Bosporus is that the western influence in Syria (and the Levant) is inexorably on the wane. The summit underscored that the three countries intend to reinforce their influence in Syria.
Having said that, while the summit flagged the intention of the three countries to deepen cooperation, they also have divergent goals. For instance, the Turkish priority was that Russia and Iran continued to acquiesce with its military operation. Erdogan stated at the joint press conference, “Turkey will not stop until all regions under PYD/PKK (Kurdish militia) control, including Manbij, are secured… Turkey values Russia and Iran’s solidarity with its Afrin operation, we will establish grounds for peace in Afrin.” Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin neither nodded agreement nor dissented.
The single most important outcome of the summit where all three countries have shared interest is in their forceful affirmation of the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and their rejection of “all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combatting terrorism.”
The bottom line is that Russia, Turkey and Iran have a strong convergence of interests in the termination of the US military presence in Syria. Paradoxically, here again the Trump factor comes in. Their brittle alliance faces an existential threat if Trump somehow realizes his dream of bringing the US troops in Syria back home “where they belong.”