The Three Musketeers: Zarif, Erdogan and Assad

It is hard to imagine Jawad Zarif in the role of D’Artagnan. But Alexandre Dumas may have been thinking of a similar triangle when it comes to Iran, Turkey and Syria. At one point these three guys were doing fine together, now two of them are fighting about the fate of the third, and each of them has different intentions than the other.


Tehran is trying to save Assad through the Russian diplomatic circus. The circus was called off by the Saudis when they refused Moscow’s proposal of a meeting with the Iranians to coordinate anti-terrorism policies. One wonders, are the Russians that naive? Or are they looking at something else?

After all, there was a trilateral meeting at the end of July where Saudi, Russian and Syrians sat together in Saudi Arabia. The Syrians leaked news of the meeting in a breach to their arrangement with Moscow and Riyadh. But the Kremlin kept pursuing the nonsensical attempt to put the three together to only be faced with a categorical Saudi “Nyet”.

The Russians are not naive. Their effort was done to render Iran a service. It was just one shot to save the doomed Assad. But it will not be the last. D’Artagnan is preparing to go to the UN next month carrying a proposal to save his dying friend. Iran announced that Zarif intends to offer a proposed draft including key elements of a political solution to the UN next month. The plan consist of four points: 1) An immediate cease fire. 2) Forming a national unity government. 3) Writing a new constitution that protects the minorities. 4) General elections under the auspices of the UN.

Yet, the latent mine remains to be the future of Assad. The legitimate call to let all Syrians decided their future government forgets another legitimate call to bring all who committed war crimes, starting with Assad and his aids, to justice.  

The whispered Russian objective is to “fill the space” by some diplomatic fanfare so that when it is time for the real walk, the track would be opened. But they sell their effort differently to the Iranians. For Moscow, it is time to prove to a post-sanctions Iran that it has reliable friends in the Kremlin, more reliable than the Western capitals rushing now to gain favors with Tehran.

This is a good investment, economically and strategically. But reliable friends are rarely able to change realities on the ground.  

As the Russian position is getting more defined with the continuous developments in the Syrian war, the Turkish position is also shaping up under the hammers of this war. The crisis in Syria is evolving gradually in a way that forces the relevant parties to face an increasingly unavoidable necessity to specify their stand more clearly.

While the nonsensical initiative of Moscow seems to have hit the wall, the Turks already calculated their options differently. They went the opposite way to what was expected. It was thought that Erdogan will hesitate between the Arabs and the Iranians after lifting the sanctions on Tehran and under the temptation of trade deals with Iran. He did not.

The game changer for Erdogan was the US approval he got for his military operation in north Syria. Erdogan seems to have thought that at the end of the day the Iranians will lose in Syria and they would lick their wounds and carry on. For the Turks, the imminent threats, particularly that of the expansion of PKK in Syria, were more important, particularly that the end game in Syria is destined to either reduce Assad to the president of the Western Mini Republic of Syria, or to kick him out altogether and keep the unity of Syria somehow.

Therefore the split between Tehran and Ankara is widening. Erdogan is not hesitant anymore. The Russians showed Tehran that they are trying (though it is difficult to believe that they themselves thought it will work).

By becoming unavoidable to come out with clearer stand, the distance between Ankara and Tehran grew wider. Just one day before Zarif was supposed to arrive to Turkey to meet the second Musketeer Erdogan in August 11, Muctaba Amani, former Iranian official in Cairo, warned the Turks. “Turkey and the other countries that support radical and extremist groups will one day pay the price for it,” Amani said. Zarif later cancelled his visit.

To see it in terms of the so-called “big picture”, it will be obvious that both Iran and Turkey are now emerging as competitors for influence over the Middle East. The Turks feel that the winds are changing in their favor. Erdogan’s calculation is that Turkey is better placed to be the broker and defender of the Sunni world at least until the conflict is settled somehow. Signing the nuclear deal was a promise of lucrative deal and reduced influence for Erdogan. He decided to try his luck at combining both objectives, the short term which is to go after the PKK and get a portion of Syria and a favor with the Arabs, and looking after the wounds in his relations with Tehran at a later stage once the choices cease to be as stark as they are now.

In a way, getting a decisive say in Syria, hence consolidating Erdogan’s ties with the Sunni world will improve Turkey’s negotiating position with the Iranians. Erdogan is fast in rebuilding his ties with the Arabs. He knows that at one point he will be sitting with the other musketeer, Jawad Zarif, to discuss the region. If the Iranian rebuilt their bridges with the World, Erdogan is left only with rebuilding his with the region.

But all will boil down to what will happen in Syria. Here, the third musketeer looks naked indeed. Assad is losing. Everybody knows that. Zarif is ready to trade his former comrade in arm for specific strategic gains in the post-Syria Assad. Yet, no buyers. The Arabs are adamant that Iran should leave Syria, Assad or no Assad. The third musketeer is getting ready to go west. Yet, that will not help him much. The Syrians will chase him wherever he goes.

One way left to the Iranians. To accept that it is check mate. To lick their wounds and drink the poison. Darra will fall. Then Damascus. And before that Aleppo. The attacks on the out skirts of Latakia will carry on until a bridge to cross to Assad’s heartland is cleared.

At one point when this gets imminent, the Iranians will come to the table, flanked by their Russian backers of course, to talk to musketeer Racep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is not in a rush. It is not him who is cornered. In the contrary, he is getting out of his corner.
Once upon a time, the three musketeers were comrades in arms. If only Dumas was still around, we could have an additional episode.

Sunday, August 16th 2015

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