By: Dr. Ely Karmon, Senior researcher at The Institute for Counter Terrorism, IDC Herzliyah.
The Iran-Russia-Turkey Triangle: The balance of Power and the Fate of the “Astana Process” After the Assassination of Qassem Soleimani
As al-Quds force commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani was the architect of Iran‘s military involvement throughout the Middle East, especially in countries and regions considered a strategic asset for the regime to which it aspired to expand its presence and export its Islamist ideology.
Syria has been a key target of the Iranian hegemony in the region, being the only ally in the Arab world since the establishment of the Khomeinist regime in Iran.
Iran has therefore been highly motivated to assist the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the popular uprising against him in March 2011. Iranian aid has included an IRGC expeditionary force of several thousand fighters, who have served mainly as advisers to the Syrian army and the National Defense Forces (NDF) militias, thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and pro-Iranians militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as significant economic aid.
After the chemical attack by the Assad regime against the opposition forces in Ghouta, near Damascus, in August 2013, and President Barak Obama’s threat to attack the Syrian army, Soleimani, who understood the threat to Assad regime’s survival, was among those who persuaded him to accept the US-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s huge chemical arsenal.
After the occupation of the Idlib region by opposition forces led by Jabhat al-Nusra, in the spring of 2015, and the failure of Iranian and its satellite forces to prevent the threat to the heart of the Alawi territory and the city of Latakia, Soleimani was personally involved in negotiations that led to Russia’s military involvement in Syria in September 2015.
At a meeting in Moscow in July 2015, he explained to his hosts how a series of defeats could be turned, with Russia’s support, into a victory for Assad. Soleimani’s visit to Moscow was the first step in planning the Russian military engagement that shaped the Syrian war and a new Iran-Russian alliance in support to Assad.
Thus, Soleimani became Russia’s main Iranian partner in Syria and to some extent in Iraq, where an operational center was opened in Baghdad to coordinate all forces involved with Assad in the war against ISIS in Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron after the killing of Soleimani, “agreed that US actions have the potential to seriously aggravate the situation in the region.” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova noted that “the killing of a representative of a government of a sovereign state, an official, are completely devoid of any legal basis.”
Russia’s defense ministry called Soleimani’s assassination a “short-sighted” step that will lead to a “sharp escalation” of tensions. Soleimani, the ministry said, was “a competent military leader, who had a well-deserved authority and significant influence throughout the Middle East.” He was a “founder of armed resistance” to Daesh/ISIS and al Qaeda terror groups in Syria and Iraq, it said.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, in a phone conversation, told Mike Pompeo, his American counterpart, that U.S. actions “grossly violate the principles of international law and deserve condemnation”. But he added that Moscow is ready to contribute to opening a dialogue between Washington and Tehran if the parties show interest in doing so. The minister emphasized that Moscow was not going to meddle in the ties between the United States and Iran. “By meddling in US-Iranian relations I mean some physical actions.”
On the Iranian side, foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, stated that “Soleimani was a key figure in our bilateral partnership with Russia and showed great respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he had close relationship.”
Putin made an unannounced visit to Damascus on January 7, 2020, his only second visit to Syria, and met with President Bashar Assad and other top officials. “In his conversation with Assad, Putin noted that “a huge distance has been traveled towards restoring Syrian statehood and the country’s territorial integrity,” declared Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. According to David Lesch, an American expert on Syria, Putin is there to reinforce the Russian position in Syria, “especially as Iran’s position has been indelibly weakened, since Soleimani was essentially Iran in Syria.”
Kremlin’s message is that today Russia is the heavyweight in Syria, and not Iran – a message addressed to Washington and Brussels as well as Tehran.
Now, the Russians are likely to be freer to influence the Assad administration and be able to play a greater role in rebuilding Syria’s economic infrastructure, in which Iran also wants to play a significant part.
Syria’s pro-Iranian militias are an important part of President Assad’s offensive force, and work in coordination with Russia to regain and assist Damascus-controlled territories. Without Iranian support, it is difficult for Russia to take action on the ground.
On the other hand, the interests of Moscow and Tehran in Syria do not always overlap. Russians believe that strong Iranian support makes Damascus more uncompromising in political negotiations, and clashes with the Russian vision to settle the Syrian crisis. But until now – and with Soleimani’s help – Moscow has always been able to find a compromise with the pro-Iranian forces.
Russia also wants to deepen its penetration into Iraq at the expense of the US as Americans are pressed to withdraw from Iraq due to the demands of the Iraqi parliament and pro-Iranian forces. This could serve Russia politically and strategically, but not only. The Financial Times reported January 3 that the price of Brent crude jumped 3.5 per cent to more than $68 a barrel following the killing of Soleimani. As a major oil exporter, dependent on oil and gas revenues for more than a third of its federal budget revenues, Russia will also be keeping an eye on the oil price.
However, how to respond to the Soleimani killing poses a serious challenge to Moscow. On the one hand, it raises the opportunity to strengthen its ties with Tehran, argue Strobe Talbott and Maggie Tennis from the Brookings Institution. If Americans will be compelled to withdraw troops from Iraq, the United States will find it hard to sustain a presence in Syria and Russia will cement its position as a regional power broker. It has already succeeded in undermining U.S. relations with Turkey. On the other hand, if Israel escalates its strikes against Iranian targets or Hezbollah, which vowed to revenge Soleimani’s death, or Iran will progress toward nuclear breakout, after it announced that it would stop obeying all restrictions imposed by the Iran deal on its nuclear activities, Russia’s ability to control the situation in Syria will be compromised.
In sum, Moscow’s responses to the US killing of Soleimani were moderate and cautious. The Russian leadership does not seem to be overly sorry about the disappearance of its main partner in Syria and to a lesser extent in Iraq. This is an opportunity to strengthen its grip on Syria, its image as a stabilizing factor and a faithful ally in the Middle East and to make Libya another example of its status as a regional and global power, this time with the generous assistance of Turkish President Erdogan.
In the two days following the Soleimani assassination on January 3 in Baghdad, Ankara took a “wait and see” approach and maneuvered so that it would not be dragged into a stance supporting Tehran’s campaign against the US.
Turkey has issued a statement opposing “foreign interventions, assassinations and sectarian conflicts in the region.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the air strike on Soleimani “a serious risk to the region” and promised that Turkey would “reduce the tensions.” Erdogan adopted a more negative tone against the United States. “Turkey is always opposed to foreign intervention and sees the recent US attack in Baghdad with this same understanding.” Turkish officials have expressed concern that the incident could undermine Iraq’s stability and cause a severe blow to neighboring countries. He emphasized Turkey’s role as a mediator, saying his country would serve to end the cycle of violence.
Interestingly, when the Iranian embassy in Turkey tweeted a message of condolence between Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was reported that Erdogan called Soleimani “a martyr.” Turkish government television immediately reported that Erdogan did not use this term to describe the killed Iranian general.
According to Abdülkadir Selvi, a columnist for Hürriyet newspaper, known for his close links to Turkey’s ruling party, Erdogan will pursue a balancing policy and advise all involved parties to remain calm. “But the warning to be calm and act with moderation is also for the Turkish public, not only for Iran and the United States,” he said.
To understand the true position of the Turkish leadership towards the dramatic event of Soleimani’s killing, one should follow the national media outlets close to Erdogan personally and his administration.
For example, İbrahim Karagül, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Turkish daily Yeni Şafak, known for his support of Erdogan and his party AKP, surpassed many in hate speech against Iran and Soleimani.
Karagül wrote that Soleimani “was a symbol of Iran/Persia’s imperial power. He stood at the intersection of the neural networks spread throughout the region within Iran’s deep structure. He was the mastermind behind the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah, Hashd al-Shabi and other organizations and structures. He was directly linked to religious leader Ali Khamenei, and was in charge of all covert operations, unofficial wars and interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. He was a man that left blood and grief in his wake at every place he went, stopped by or passed through. He was triggering an Islamic civil war, ruthlessly implementing every type of terrorism.”
“Does US killing him absolve him? Can that photo he posed for in Aleppo be forgotten [after the Syrian army occupied the besieged city]? He seemed like a victorious commander. But in fact, he was walking over the corpses of the oppressed people of Aleppo. He was fighting against Turkey in Syria…He was a hero according to the Shiite world, yet according to the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world, he was a war criminal murderer,” continued Karagül.
Yasin Aktay, another Yeni Şafak journalist, accuses the United States to have presented a precious gift to Iran, by opening the door of Iraq to Iran. The United States has completely given way to Iran to treat Iraq as one of its provinces. In fact, claims Aktay, the context of the murder of Qassem Soleimani is also tied to Iraq and the place where he was killed is Baghdad.
Turkey’s ruling AKP is divided over U.S. killing of Soleimani. A number of AKP officials and names linked to the Islamist party have come out blasting the United States over the move while others have expressed their support for the killing. Former AKP supporter turned critic, author Ömer Turan, expressed his surprise at the number of Iran supporters within Turkey’s ruling party. Former AKP deputy Şamil Tayyar said Soleimani’s death is a loss not only for Iran, but for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and YPG in Syria, since Soleimani was the PKK’s biggest guardian, the Turkish government’s sworn enemy.
The Turkish position can be understood considering the durable conflict of interests in the region between Iran and Turkey: both regimes want to achieve hegemonic status in the region and have a decisive influence, especially in Syria, Iraq and the Gulf. Moreover, on the religious level, Erdogan wants to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world while the Shiite regime in Tehran has long been active in exporting the Khomeinist revolution to the Arab states and in fact to the entire Muslim world.
These contrasts are particularly acute in their two neighboring countries, Syria and Iraq, where until recently Syria was the center of the struggle between the two regional powers.
In Syria Turkey’s position has been strengthened compared to Tehran. Erdogan has come to terms with President Putin on the need not to forcefully occupy the Syrian rebel led Idlib region, where the Turkish army and pro-Turkish militias have a limited presence, and maintain Turkish army conquests in some of the Kurdish areas (Afrin, Jerbolos). There was even an understanding with the US on the need of a buffer zone in Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria, according to President Trump’s own decision. By contrast, the extra-territorial military presence of the Iranian, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Shiite militia militants is blatantly challenged by the Israeli Air Force’s regular bombings as part of strategic understandings between Israel and Russia.
Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership has been able to prove its ability to fulfill its neo-Ottoman dream of holding and occupying outposts, like its close relations with Hamas in Gaza and even a presence in Haram Al Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem, through some proxy NGOs.
Recently, Ankara has also become a key player in the fight for control of the Libyan civil war, in which Turkey supports political and military rule in Tripoli, recognized by the United Nations, and Russia supports Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of the territory east of Tripoli and is approaching its occupation. Libya’s control is important from a strategic point of view, but it has a high value because it allows control of oil fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Libya has a significant place in Turkish history because the Ottoman Empire ruled it from 1551 to 1864 as the Eyalet of Tripolitania.
During a ceremony in Istanbul to open the TurkStream pipeline on January 8, 2020, Erdogan and Putin called for a ceasefire in Libya and presented themselves as the solution leaders for the situation in Libya. The pipeline is scheduled to transport Russian natural gas to southern Europe through Turkey, and to reduce Russian gas deliveries through Ukraine. This deal has an important role to play in strengthening the strategic ties and cooperation between the two neighboring countries and further linking Turkey to Russia. This is in addition to the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, delivered by Russia last year, despite Washington and NATO protests.
In light of the above situation, the question arises as to how, after Soleimani’s assassination, the Russia-Iran-Turkey triple Alliance would function as part of the “Astana process,” which was supposed to bring about a military, political and economic solution to the civil war in Syria and determine the “distribution of loot” between the three partners.
The process has so far survived various crises but may be undermined in the near future due to potential tensions between Russia and Iran and the weakening of Iran in the regional and international arena. What would Ankara do in this case? Will it choose to mediate between Moscow and Tehran, or will it choose sides?
Until recently Iran has been considered a victor in the regional arena and, according to some of its leaders, in four Arab capitals (Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana’a). However, huge popular protests in Iraq and Lebanon challenging Iranian influence through its proxy, and in Iran itself, counting those after the killing of Soleimani, as a result of the downing of civilian Ukrainian airplane by the IRGC air defenses, have weakened the Tehran regime.
It is of note that for the moment there are not known Iranian criticisms of the muted Russian and Turkish reactions to Soleimani’s killing. Tehran probably understands that it has not left many allies and still needs the good will of its two partners in Syria.
Since the balance of power and influence in Syria has been disrupted in favor of Russia on the one hand, and Turkey on the other, it is unclear how Tehran will respond in future complex negotiations and in particular how Soleimani’s replacement, Ismail Qaani, will deal with the two veteran partners.
In the resulting situation, Israel’s freedom of action against Iran’s attempts to build an extraterritorial military presence in Syria may also increase.
 Ilya Arkhipov, Áine Quinn and Caroline Alexander for Bloomberg, The Moscow Times, January 8, 2020 .
 Elena Teslova, “Putin, Macron express ‘concern’ about Soleimani killing,” Anadolu Agency, January 4, 2020.
 “Russia ready to help establish dialogue between US and Iran,” InfoRos, January 14, 2020.
 “Russia’s Putin makes rare visit to Syria, meets Assad,” Reuters, January 7, 2020.
 Candace Rondeaux, “How Putin benefits from rising tensions between the US and Iran,” World Politics Review, January 13, 2020.
 James Rodgers, “Russia Condemns Killing of Iran’s Soleimani, Watches Oil Price,” Forbes, January 4, 2020.
 Strobe Talbott and Maggie Tennis, “The only winner of the US-Iran showdown is Russia,” The Brookings Institution, Order from Chao Blogs, January 9, 2020.
 Frances Martel, “Pro-Erdogan Turkish Columnist: Soleimani a ‘War Criminal Murderer’ of Muslims,” Breibart, January 6, 2020.
 “Turkey’s Erdoğan, Putin pledge to cooperate as U.S.-Iran crisis simmers,” Ahval News, January 8, 2020.
 İbrahim Karagül, “Qassem Soleimani: Legend or murderer?” Yeni Şafak, January 4, 2020. (Turkish daily, a conservative newspaper known for its hardline support of president Erdoğan and the AK Parti and has a very close relationship with the Turkish government}.
 Yasin Aktay, “Why did the US assassinate Qassem Soleimani?” Yeni Şafak, January 4, 2020.
 “Turkey’s ruling AKP divided over U.S. killing of Iran’s Soleimani,” Ahval News. January 5 2020, at https://ahvalnews.com/iran-turkey/turkeys-ruling-akp-divided-over-us-killing-irans-soleimani. According to some sources, Ahval is a Gülenist online news site on Turkey funded by the United Arab Emirates.
 Ahmet S. Yayla, “Erdogan’s Libyan Adventure: Turkey, Russia, Gas Pipelines and Missiles,” The Investigative Journal, January 13, 2020.
 Metin Gurcan, “Ankara struggles to adapt to new geopolitical reality after Soleimani’s killing,” Turkey Pulse, Al-Monitor, January 12, 2020.
Originally published by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (IDC Herzliya)