With the recent announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that the United States seeks to exit the Syrian conflict, it appears as though the fate of Syria—following years of a tragic civil war that has taken the lives of more than 300,000 Syrians—now rests in the hands of a new imperialist axis: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The three leaders met last week, with the United States conspicuously absent, to discuss the future of Syria just days before Syrian forces backed by President Bashar Assad once again used chemical weapons on its own people. The picture of the Erdogan, Rouhani and Putin meeting at a summit to tackle the world’s most brutal humanitarian disaster resembles a picture of the cat, the fox and the godfather, respectively. More accurately, the picture provides a snapshot of a new imperialism that seeks to dominate the Middle East.
The meeting of the three leaders in Ankara addressed a number of conflicting interests highlighting each country’s reasons for engaging in Syria in the first place. Perhaps the only common interest among the group is their clear will to partition Syria.
The three leaders—each responsible in their own right for destabilizing the Middle East—expressed a look of childish satisfaction at the summit, permitted with the conspicuous absence of the United States. Trump’s decision to take America out of the game is a grave mistake that he himself may be beginning to understand as he now considers postponing America’s exit.
Anytime a major player exits a conflict in the Middle East, whether through defeat or retreat, it creates a vacuum that is quickly filled by other players. America’s exit from Syria would allow the expansion of its worst enemies in a volatile and extremely dangerous area. By leaving, Trump would essentially abandon the Kurds, Yazidis, dissident Sunnis and Christians, leaving them in the hands of this new imperialist trio.
Europe continues to have zero influence in the Syrian conflict. And so, left to the machinations of Erdoğan, Rouhani and Putin, there should be little doubt that the massacre of 300,000 Syrians by Assad and his forces will continue.
Yet the three protagonists of the recent summit did not exactly embrace each other in front of the cameras. Their smiles hardly concealed their conflicting personal agendas. In the long run, Iran and Russia support Assad, whereas Erdoğan despises him. But Erdoğan, who similar to Assad murders and imprisons his opponents, now appears to be expressing his willingness to smooth over friction between Turkey and Russia. Turkey is one of the few countries that has not expelled Russian diplomats after the nerve-agent attack against one of Putin’s former spies, who accused the Russian oligarch of running a gangster state.
Now what does Turkey want from the Russian leader? Erdoğan seeks cover in his ongoing efforts to neutralize and ethnically cleanse the Kurds in Afrin, just as Assad continues to persecute Kurds living in the Kurdish zone of Manjib, west of the Euphrates. Similarly, Turkey wants the successful completion of a purchase agreement for the Russian S-400 missile system, among the most powerful in the world, and the implementation of the Rosatom plan for the first Turkish nuclear plant.
And what does Iran seek? It wants to continue unimpeded in its ambitions to dominate the entire Middle East, from Iran to Lebanon, and from there … the sky’s the limit. Tehran is now fortifying a clear channel of passage to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, and right up to the Syrian and Lebanese borders with Israel, where it threatens Israel through its terror proxy, Hezbollah.
Russia, on the other hand, wants full access to the Mediterranean coast to exert its dominance over the region. It has a naval facility in Tartus and an airbase in the Syrian port city of Latakia.
It is therefore a pipe dream to believe that these three nations, active on the ground in Syria, will be able to stop the conflict. The war began as a Sunni insurgency against the excessive Shiite power of Assad, and there is no end in sight. It is also unlikely that the Kurds would surrender to the Turks. In short, the war will go on.
The summit in Ankara is the second, after a meeting in Sochi, which seeks to sell the idea that the Erdoğan, Rouhani and Putin, first involved in clashes between themselves, now want to discuss a peace agreement.
If front of the cameras, each speak of democracy and a constitution for the Syrian people—tools that are not adhered to in their own countries. Yet behind closed doors, it can be certain that the conversations were more practical. For example, Putin is not particularly devoted to Assad’s survival and also has an axe to grind with Islam, included in the Iranian ambitions to create a Shiite crescent across the entire Middle East.
Meanwhile, Trump’s announcement that he would like leave Syria seems a move taken out of fear of arguing with the cat, the fox and the godfather. The announcement sends clear signals that the United States is willing to abandon the Kurds—America’s greatest ally in the war against ISIS; it is willing to surrendering to the evils of Erdoğan’s Turkey out of concern that NATO could implode; and that it is willing to leave the field open to Iran, whose nuclear ambitions and human-rights violations Trump himself has rightly criticized. In short, Trump’s announcement seems like a weak response to blackmail, which is a mistake that must never be made when dealing with enemies.
Furthermore, the argument that leaving the Syrian conflict will save American money simply doesn’t hold weight. If the Saudis engage in a conflict with Iran to protect the Sunni kingdom from the growing Shiite imperialist threat, then oil prices would immediately skyrocket. War between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran would have a major impact on the global economy. And on America.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Translation by Amy Rosenthal.