The ‘Triple Alliance’ Could Prolong the Syrian Conflict

The ‘Triple Alliance’ Could Prolong the Syrian Conflict

Monday, 3 December, 2018 - 10:00
Syrian refugees at the Zaatari camp in Jordan. (Reuters)
Amir Taheri
“A wasted opportunity!” This is how Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations’ special envoy on Syria, describes the latest meeting sponsored by Iran, Russia and Turkey, unofficially known as “the triple alliance”, to determine the future of the war-torn nation. Held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, the two-day meeting was expected to hear a report on progress made in drafting a new constitution under the supervision of “the triple alliance”.

According to a “senior Russian source”, quoted by the official Iranian news agency FARS, the hope was that the drafting committee would be up and running by the end of the year.

However, that deadline no longer seems realistic.

The Russian source did not spell out the reasons for the setback. But, judging by commentaries in Russian, Turkish and Iranian media, disagreement within the “triple alliance” on a number of key issues, prevented the submission of a joint text to other parties in the process including President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Syrian opposition, the United States and the Arab states by Jordan.

“A joint text suggested by Russia, Turkey and Iran will have every chance of being accepted by other parties as the basis for a final draft,” says the Tehran news site Tabnak.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran’s disagreements start with the official description of a future Syria.

Ankara insists that the term “Syrian Republic” would be enough. Ankara also opposes the label “Arab Republic” for Syria because, it argues, the country includes other ethnic communities including the Turkmen and the Kurds.

Paradoxically, Russia is believed to favor the term “Arab republic” in the hope that a future Syria allied to Moscow would be able to seek a leadership role in the Arab world.

Tehran, however, demands that the adjective “Islamic” be added to the Syrian republic to indicate what “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has called “Syria’s place in the Resistance Front”.

In an address to the Islamic Convergence (taqrib) Conference in Tehran last week, President Hassan Rouhani presented Syria as “an Islamic cause”. He also announced that Tehran now recognized two of the four schools of Sunni Islam (the Hanafi and the Shafei), that cover a majority of Syrians, as legitimate versions of Islam. Thus Iran’s demand that Syria be described as an “Islamic Republic” isn’t an attempt to expand Shi’ite influence, because Rouhani did not mention the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.

More importantly, perhaps, the leadership in Tehran has stopped lobbying in Qom and Najaf to persuade the grand ayatollahs to recognize the Alawite faith as a branch of an expanded form of Shi’ism under the name of Fatimah rather than the traditional appellation of “ghulat” or “extremists”.

Last month Tehran rolled out the red carpet for a number of Syrian Sunni clerics close to Assad to promote the idea of an “Islamic Syria”, where Hanafi and Shafei schools would have leading roles.

Structure of a future Syrian state
The “triple alliance” is also divided over the broad structure of a future Syrian state. Tehran insists on a unified state with power concentrated in Damascus. Ankara wants a looser structure in which at least 12 religious and ethnic communities would enjoy a large measure of autonomy in the manner of the “millah” system” created under the Ottoman Empire. For its part, Moscow favors a federal system, reflecting the interests of the Kurdish minority, but not one based in religion.

Another point of disagreement concerns the long-lease granted by Assad to Russia for building a number of aero-naval bases on Syrian territory.

President Vladimir Putin insists that the future Constitution should include an article honoring the leases already granted to Russia. Ankara and Tehran, however, seek a general article allowing Russia, Turkey and Iran to maintain a military presence in Syria for a fixed time, subject to approval by a future Syrian constituent assembly.

According to sources in Ankara, Tehran and Moscow, another point of friction concerns the status of Turkish, Russian and Iranian troops already in Syria. Russia has said that once a peace settlement is reached it would confine its forces to the bases already granted. That would also require drastically cutting their numbers. Turkey, however, insists that any withdrawal be phased out over an indeterminate period and be conditional to accords with local Turkmen and Syrian-Arab allies of Ankara.

Iran faces a bigger problem with the estimated 80,000-man war-machine it maintains in Syria, most of them “volunteers”, from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. It is unlikely that the countries of origin would want so many seasoned fighters back home. Taking them into Iran itself is also problematic because of strong internal opposition and the risks involved in absorbing tens of thousands of professional fighters.

Unofficial mandate
The 15-point final communique of the Astana meeting is clearly designed to establish the “triple alliance” as an internationally-recognized authority on Syria without going as far as claiming a mandate over that nation. The Astana communique tries to prepare world opinion for such a mandate by demanding a leading role for what it calls “the Iran, Russia, Turkey action coordination center.”

“Putin’s aim is to secure the final word on Syria without being asked to foot the bill for reconstruction,” says analyst Hamid Zomorrodi. “The Astana communique, especially in its first article, is indirectly demanding that the United Nations acknowledge that unofficial mandate.”

However, it is unlikely that the UN would endorse such a position. The UN could play a leading role in a clearly defined period of transition by appointing a special coordinator with explicit backing from the Security Council and, if needed, the European Union.

By all accounts, divisions over the future of Syria within the “triple alliance” have deepened, with Iran suspecting that Turkey and Russia maybe making separate deals behind its back. At the same time, Turkey suspects Iran of plotting to keep a finger in the Syrian pie through its allies in Iraq. For its part, Russia seeks to forge a partnership with the European Union in an ambitious plan to rebuild Syria and facilitate a mass return of refugees. And that would require a sharp reduction in the role played by both Turkey and Iran.

Last Sunday, Tehran news-site RAJA sounded the alarm over what Iranians see as “Russia’s duplicity” over Syria. As an example, it cites the Sochi meeting between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from which Iran was excluded.

In the Syrian situation there are wheels within wheels reflecting common and contradictory interests at the same time, thus preventing the end of the tragedy.

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