By Kamran Bokhari
Over the past several months, media reports have made it seem like Russia’s influence is growing in the Middle East. After all, Russian air support helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime regain the upper hand against the rebels in Syria. Then, Turkey suddenly and intensely moved to improve ties with Russia – at a time when Turkish-American relations have deteriorated. Finally, and most recently, Russian strategic bombers conducted airstrikes in Syria after taking off from an Iranian air base.
Today, however, the serious geopolitical constraints that Russia faces in expanding its influence in the Middle East became quite apparent. The Kremlin’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that Russia and Turkey remained at odds over Syria. Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ said that anyone who accuses Turkey of aiding the Islamic State – which Moscow has done quite loudly – is an enemy. Elsewhere, within days of allowing Russian aircraft to take off from one of its bases, Iran rescinded the permission. Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan accused Russia of a “betrayal of trust” for publicizing the deal. These different but definitive signs underscore how uncomfortable Turkey and Iran are with getting too close to Russia.
Russia and Iran are on the same side as far as Syria is concerned. They are the principal allies of the Syrian regime and cooperate closely to ensure that Assad remains in power. Tehran and Moscow also have very close bilateral relations in a number of fields. Russia has helped Iran on the international front with regards to the latter’s controversial nuclear program.
That said, there is a huge debate within Iran on trusting Russia. Here we are not talking about the reformists versus hardliners. The mistrust runs deep within Tehran’s conservative establishment. Just the other day, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a ranking hardline member of the powerful parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, warned that, in recent years, Russia had demonstrated “a different and volatile foreign policy.”
Criticizing the decision to allow Russian aircraft to use the Shahid Nojeh air base, the lawmaker remarked that whenever Iran was faced with a crisis, Russia had sided against it. The Iranians are well aware that Russia views Iran as a bargaining chip for extracting concessions from the Americans. Indeed, Russia supported the most recent wave of U.S.-led crippling sanctions against Iran in 2012 and for many years delayed the supply of the S-300 missile system to Tehran.
Iran’s problem with Russia really goes back centuries. The Russians and Persians fought a number of wars between the 17th and 19th centuries. In addition, in 1941, the Soviet Union (in coordination with Britain) invaded and occupied Iran. Even after the end of World War II, the Soviets supported the creation of the short-lived Kurdish and Azeri republics carved out of territory in Iran’s northwest. Contemporary Iran is well known for its hostile relations with the United States, but its relations with Russia have also been quite troublesome – though it is far less apparent.
Ever since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Turkey and Russia have found themselves increasingly at odds. Turkey has been trying to oust Assad and is a principal supporter of the various rebel groups fighting the Russian-backed Syrian regime. Tensions remain contained until last year for many reasons – chief among them the fact that Turkey depends on Russia for more than half its natural gas needs. But when Russia began conducting airstrikes against the Turkish-backed rebels, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane last November.
Though they managed to avoid open conflict, Turkish-Russian relations were extremely hostile for the next six months. In June, the two sides cleared the air, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offering a written apology for the downed plane to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Turkey needed to improve ties with Russia because its relationship with the U.S. had soured over differences on how to deal with Syria, and especially the threat from the Islamic State.
Then came the Turkey’s July 15 coup attempt, which Turkey accused the United States of being involved in given that the founder of the Gülen movement is based in Pennsylvania. At the same time, Russia was the first nation to issue a statement of support to Erdoğan after the coup, and it appeared that the die was cast for a realignment of Turkish foreign policy.
Indeed, there has been massive anti-American rhetoric in the past six weeks along with the warming of ties with the Russians. Erdoğan even met with Putin in St. Petersburg. But those were all atmospherics, because in the end Turkey, like Iran, cannot rely on Russia. Today’s developments have only made apparent what was the case all along. If Iran, which has had a close working relationship Russia, cannot fully trust the Kremlin, Turkey has many more reasons not to. Turkish and Russian interests have historically collided in the Black Sea region, where the two have fought wars and territories have exchanged hands. Even today, Turkish and Russian proxies are at war.
More important, Turkey needs the United States, which is why we see Ankara backpedaling on the demand for Fethullah Gülen’s extradition. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu today denied that Ankara ever accused Washington of being involved in the coup. Turkish media is arguing how getting a hold of Gülen is not worth the trouble. The Turks know that they can better pursue their interests by working with the United States than by flirting with Russia.
Conversely, Turkey cannot afford to simply rely on the United States. Ankara reached out to Moscow in part because of the need to balance the U.S. But the Turks swung too far away from the United States and now are repositioning. The miscalculation is to be expected in a country that is dealing with the fallout of an attempted coup. In the end, while Turkey will not get too close to the Russians, it will also keep its distance from the Americans.
These developments show how the Russians are at best a secondary player in the Middle East. Thus, moving forward, it will be more important to watch what the real regional powers, Turkey and Iran, do to come to terms with each other and the future of the Middle East.