“Syraq”: The Tripartite’s Big Barter In The “Eurasian Balkans”
State Of Play
Moscow derives its advantageous position in the region from its alliance with Damascus and trusted relations with Baghdad. Russia also has a relationship with both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, though the former is limited only to anti-terrorist airstrikes against Daesh while the latter’s material assistance is fully coordinated with Baghdad. The trifecta of ties that Russia has with Syria, Iraq, and the Kurds gives it the greatest amount of diplomatic and strategic leverage of any actor, as no other entity has as positive relations with all three of these as Moscow presently does. Consequently, this state of affairs makes Russia the most indispensable actor in “Syraq” (the Western neologism for referring to the combined and interconnected Syrian-Iraqi battlespace).
Tehran is just as close as Moscow is with Damascus and even more so when it comes to Baghdad, but it has noticeably less warm relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil and none whatsoever with the Syrian Kurds. Iran supports the PUK and Gorran opposition groups against the ruling KDP, though it superficially enjoys ‘normal’ relations with Barzani. That might be changing, however, as the KRG hosts several Kurdish terrorist groups that have been launching a low-intensity invasion of Iran over the past month, and it’s only a matter of time before Tehran’s patience runs out in dealing with Erbil’s excuses. The leader of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council recently warned his Kurdish counterparts that his country’s territorial integrity was a “red line” and that the armed forces will react however they deem necessary if this invasion continues.
Ankara is the diplomatic sore thumb in the region, having poor relations with every player in “Syraq” and playing the role of spoiler over the past five years. Relations with Baghdad hit a major low when Turkey sent troops to the KRG under the ostensible pretext of “prearranged anti-terrorist training”, though which was condemned by the Iraqi central authorities as being an illegal invasion. At this point, Turkey’s relations with the KRG deserve some clarification, since it may otherwise be too confusing for some readers to follow. Despite Turkey’s testy history of relations with the Kurds, Ankara is very close to Barzani, the KDP ruler of Iraqi Kurdistan, and it’s through this relationship that the Turks were scandalously ‘invited’ into the country (though outside the purview of Baghdad, ergo why it was labelled an invasion). Turkey’s greatest fear is the appearance of a sub-state Kurdish entity inside of Syria, whether as a “federalized” or autonomous statelet, since it feels that this will give the PKK a base all along the southern Turkish border from which they could expand their anti-state militant activity.
The US has semi-hegemonic influence over Baghdad, though it’s far away from exercising complete control over the country. The numerous Shiite militias in Iraq are aligned with Iran, so Washington instead tries to counterbalance this by backing the Sunni groups and the Iraqi Army, the latter of which is also supported by Tehran. Washington is also very close to the Kurds and regularly uses them as proxies both within Iraq but also now in Syria, too. Actually, it can be said that the US visibly has much closer relations with the Sunni and Kurdish non-state actors in “Syraq” (including terrorist groups) than it does with its state-based counterparts in either country, and it’s precisely by means of this transnational sub-state set of relationships along their shared border that Washington is gearing up for its post-conflict scenario of continued divide-and-rule interference.
The only way to resolve the War of Terror on Syria is for Turkey to immediately close its border with the country and prevent the flow of terrorists from its territory into its neighbor’s. Concurrent with this, Turkey must accept President Assad as the democratically elected and legitimate leader of Syria that he’s always been, whether they publicly admit this directly, resort to euphemisms, or ‘save face’ by continuing their rhetoric. Either way, tangible change in both of these two directions is long overdue, though it can be presumed that Turkey’s turtle-like pace is largely due to the large degree of Saudi pressure on the country, since Riyadh would likely order its jihadi terrorists to make Turkey the “next Syria” if Ankara rapidly pivoted away from it by instantly closing the border. Even so, Turkey has no existential choice but to confront this menace arm-in-arm with its new Russian and Iranian multipolar partners, so the sooner that it moves in this direction, the better, though for the time being it’s understandable (though not excusable, which is a big difference) why it’s taking it’s time in order to proactively set up the internal defensive measures necessary to safeguard against this oncoming onslaught. Still, Turkey cannot wait too long to do this, though, because otherwise it will squander its newfound partners’ trust and unwittingly make the situation all the more difficult for itself in the long run.
Turkey needs to return to its pre-2011 mindset whereby it identified Syria as an irreplaceable strategic partner and had a self-interested stake in its prosperous development. Knowing what has been revealed in the past month about the depth of penetration that the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO) had achieved in the Turkish “deep state”, it’s logical to surmise that this played an instrumental role behind the disastrous attractiveness of Neo-Ottomanism at that time. It was most likely knowingly aided and abetted by then-Foreign Minister and future Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the author of the “strategic depth” foundational concept that was later abused to justify this aggression, though both of these explanations by no means whatsoever excuse Erdogan for his personal complicity in the anti-Syrian plot. Rather, they serve to describe how the Turkish leader who had at one point embraced his Syrian counterpart ended up betraying him and waging a dirty Hybrid War on his people out of geopolitical greed. On the flip side, with FETO being cleansed from the “deep state” and Davutoglu no longer in a position of power, Erdogan can now take the courageous steps necessary to rectify his country’s disastrous and deadly policy towards Syria and make an attempt to responsibly atone for his sins by taking the long overdue step of closing the border and constructively adhering to any of Damascus’ other requests.
As for Iraq, the situation is infinitely more complicated because the of the trilateral geo-identity split in the country, with the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis each distributed in a large concentrations over concrete territories. While the “federalization” (internal partition) of Syria could still be avoided if Turkey rises to the occasion, stops supporting terrorism in its southern neighbor, and cooperates with all of Damascus’ requests, it’s probably impossible at this moment to reverse what seems to be the inevitable fracturing of Iraq. The author is not advocating the scenario of Identity Federalism, but sees no alternative choices at present to its actualization, with the only two other possibilities being civil war or secession of each identity unit into separate states. Faced with this adverse eventuality, the most efficient thing that the Tripartite can do is attempt to manage it to the best of their abilities, with each actor utilizing its unique diplomatic strengths to help hold the entire entity together. Iran would obviously assist the Shiites, while Turkey could perhaps work to displace the US and Saudi Arabia in the Sunni portions of the country, though this would definitely be an uphill battle and one which is not likely to yield any tangible results right away. Nonetheless, it’s worth attempting, and there isn’t any other relevant multipolar power with the potential to compete with Washington and Riyadh on soft power terms with the Sunnis.
Concerning the Iraqi Kurds, this is where the Tripartite really has the potential to multilaterally shine. Turkey’s backing of the KDP combined with Iran’s for the PUK and Gorran could come together to form a working tandem that would stabilize the situation in the KRG and exert restraining influence on any independence-prone party (right now that’s mostly the KDP), while Russia’s pragmatic Baghdad-coordinated relations with the entity as a whole could supplement the support that Ankara and Tehran give to its partisan actors. The situation with the Syrian Kurds is of a qualitatively different nature, but it can also just as equally serve as a unifying cause for tightening the Russian-Iranian-Turkish Tripartite. All three Great Powers are resolutely opposed to the Kurds’ unilateral and unconstitutional declaration of “federalization” (internal partition), and each one has a stake in helping Damascus restore sovereignty over the de-facto breakaway borderland region.
It’s not known what form it will take or the exact nature of its activities, but it’s obvious at this time that Russia, Iran, and Turkey are moving towards a convergence on this issue and are likely deliberating amongst themselves how best to multilaterally tackle this new pro-American geostrategic asymmetrical plot. Without a doubt, this is also being done in consultation with Damascus, whether it’s ever officially admitted to or not because of the sensitivity of joint Syrian-Turkish discussions (let alone possible coordinated military action) against the pro-American Kurds, and the whole point is to stop the emergence of a US proxy regime in the region that would ferociously hostile to the Multipolar Community. All affected stakeholders are thus expected to leverage all of their diplomatic instruments in synchronization to prevent the independence or “federalization” of the Kosovo-like artificial entity that the US has taken to calling “Rojava”, up to and including military force if necessary as the ultimate “continuation of politics of other means”.
As optimistic as one might be about the abovementioned framework for bringing peace to “Syraq”, there are regretfully a couple major hurdles that will pose quite a challenge to even the most dedicated of efforts. The first and most obvious one is that the Saudis will not cede the influence that they’ve acquired over the terrorist-occupied Sunni areas of this transnational battlespace, meaning that Turkey might realistically place itself at risk of entering into a prolonged proxy confrontation with the Kingdom that its decision makers are ill-prepared or perhaps even unwilling to engage in. The geo-ideological struggle for ‘hearts and minds’ in “Sunnistan” (the author’s term for the transnational Daesh-occupied areas of “Syraq”) would make Turkey the Sunni counterpart of Shiite Iran in multidimensionally pushing back against Saudi influence throughout the region. The only way that this ambitious attempt could ever succeed is if there’s full trust and coordination between Ankara and Tehran in cooperating over the long term in pursuit of this greater good, though due to the toughness of this task, the length of time that it might take to yield tangible results, and the terrorist consequences that this will inevitably bring to Turkey, it can’t be assumed that Ankara will even agree to this, to say nothing about its will to sustain this campaign indefinitely if it decides to go forward with it.
Along the same vein, Saudi Arabia and the US might strike back against the Tripartite by encouraging more terrorist infiltration into the theater from the southern direction through Jordan and Saudi Arabia, aiming to breathe some extra life into their failing “Sunnistan” project. While it’s already been countenanced that a “federalized” Sunni entity will likely spring up in Iraq following Daesh’s defeat, there’s still a very good chance that its cross-border counterpart can be defeated and that the internal partition of Syria never succeeds, but if things don’t go according to plan and this geostrategic project somehow materializes in de-facto or de-jure form, then it would become an even more important unipolar springboard in the Mideast than a pro-Western Armenian one would be in the Southern Caucasus. In parallel with this, US-Saudi-“Israeli” support (collectively referred to as Cerberus) for a “federalized” Kurdistan in northern Syria would amount to a smaller but no less important equivalent to “Sunnistan”, with both transnational sub-state formations representing the offensive flank of Cerberus’ plans for geostrategically reengineering the region amidst its conventional retreat. The objective is to essentially push the Saudi border northwards to Turkey via these two interlinked projects, which would then separate Syria from Iraq and drive a unipolar wedge right in the middle of the “New (Multipolar) Middle East”.
The last related dark scenario that could materialize in the wake of Cerberus’ ‘scorched earth’ retreat is that the Iraqi Kurds spark a post-Daesh civil war in their country after their likely refusal to leave Kirkuk (and possibly even Mosul by that point) and instead continue occupying it as part of their “federalized” or perhaps even independence-directed statelet. The Kurds scandalously took over Kirkuk after the Iraqi Army fled in the face of Daesh’s infamous summer 2014 advance, and they’ve held on to it ever since because of its impressive oil reserves. Mosul is just as strategic to the KRG and also located on the periphery of their statelet, so it’s foreseeable that they’ll seek to repeat the occupation of Kirkuk in Iraq’s second largest city if they’re successful in liberating it from Daesh. Unlike their media-friendly reputation in the West, the reality behind Kurdish military advances past their traditional homeland is that they regularly engage in ethnic cleansing against non-Kurds, so while the Western mainstream media trumps up the ‘threat’ of ‘Shiite retribution’ against the Sunni inhabitants of the Daesh-occupied cities, the real danger actually rests with the Kurds seeking to cleanse the Arabs out and move in more of their own stateless kin instead. They probably won’t do this on as wide of a scale as they’ve previously done in northern Syria, but nevertheless, if they succeed in seizing such a strategic city (whether or not it’s ethnically cleansed afterwards, be it wholly or partially), they might not let it go without a fight, ergo the likely potential for a post-Daesh Iraqi Civil War.