Moscow’s Troika of Autocrats: Will the Middle East Witness a Shifting Balance of Power?

On Monday, December 19 the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated by a Turkish police officer during the opening of an art exhibition in Ankara in what appears to be retaliation for Russia’s military involvement in Syria.

After firing at the ambassador, the attacker shouted in Turkish: “Don’t forget Aleppo. Don’t forget Syria. Unless our towns are secure, you won’t enjoy security. Only death can take me from here. Everyone who is involved in this suffering will pay a price.”

Since the assassination, Russia and Turkey have seemed to become more united rather than divided, collectively deeming the act a “provocation” and a deliberate attempt to disrupt Russo-Turkish reconciliation efforts.

Several days prior to the event, Turkish citizens, angered by the Russian government’s involvement in Syria, held protests outside the Russian consulate in Istanbul. Despite domestic opposition toward the extent of Turkish collusion with Russia in Syria, Ankara has remained firm in its intention to play a leading role in the Syrian peace negotiations with Russia. At the same time, Russia has used its position to exclude Western governments from negotiations and to cement its role as the security guarantor alongside Turkey and Iran.

“Russia’s role as the security broker in Syrian negotiations and the exclusion of the United States from the bargaining table bolsters Moscow’s ability to preserve Bashar al-Assad and solidifies its long-term objectives in the Middle East.”

Both Moscow and Ankara vowed to commit to the normalization of their bilateral relations and to continue the fight against terrorism after Karlov’s assassination. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a televised address, stated “the crime that was committed is without doubt a provocation aimed at disrupting the normalization of Russian-Turkish relations and disrupting the peace process in Syria that is being actively advanced by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.”

Following his conversation with his Russian counterpart, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement underlining the nature of the attack, calling it a “blatant provocation targeting Turkey-Russia relations.” Erdogan vowed that both Russia and Turkey would never allow their relations to deteriorate while affirming the stability of the “joint efforts towards finding a political resolution for the Syrian issue.”

The assassination occurred a day before scheduled negotiations in Moscow among the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey regarding the situation in Syria. Following the tripartite negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, alongside his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, released a joint statement to establish measures toward a political resolution for the Syrian conflict. In addition, Lavrov underscored the necessity “to fully respect Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity.” Rather than a change in Syrian leadership, “the main task is to stop the suffering of completely innocent people, resolve humanitarian issues, and wage a relentless fight against terrorism.”

All three countries have sought to assume important roles in determining the fate of Syria, with Russia and Iran strongly supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey, a NATO member, preferring his removal from power. However, in recent months, Turkey has moderated its rhetoric on Assad as the fight against terrorism has assumed a greater role than the removal of the Syrian president. Under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has increasingly veered away from democracy, especially since the failed coup in July 2016. Thus, the cooperative sentiment among Russia, Turkey, and Iran seems to signal the emergence of a short-term alliance.

“Russia’s security interests are driven by the notion that it is critically important to maintain a security belt in its periphery, which has to be created by friendly or even subordinate nations.”

Russia’s role as the security broker in Syrian negotiations and the exclusion of the United States from the bargaining table bolsters Moscow’s ability to preserve Bashar al-Assad and solidifies its long-term objectives in the Middle East. Furthermore, the growing strength of Russia’s relationship with Iran and Turkey “reflects Putin’s desire to cement his country’s growing influence in the Middle East and more widely.” This dimension is indicative of the manner in which Russian alignment has formed as a reactionary element to U.S. policy. As a result, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East has sought to alter the existing balance of power for its own advantage and at the expense of its perceived adversaries.

Domestically, Russia faces an Islamist-led insurgency in the North Caucasus and remains acutely aware of the potential spillover resulting from its action in the Middle East. Reflecting these concerns, Putin called on Russia’s security services “to take additional measures to ensure security inside Russia and outside, [and] to raise the security of Russian institutions and employees abroad.” Russia’s security interests are driven by the notion that it is critically important to maintain a security belt in its periphery, which has to be created by friendly or even subordinate nations.

If sustained, the Russia-Turkey-Iran troika signals a major political and military realignment in the Middle East. For Russia, the military campaign in Syria is viewed as an opportunity to increase its regional influence vis-à-vis the United States. At the same time, Russia seeks to prevent the emergence of hostile or failed states along its southern borders. By establishing and maintaining productive relations with Turkey and Iran, Russia also assumes a leading role in negotiating the fate of Syria and consolidating its interests in the region. Therefore, at least in the short-term, Russian alignment with Turkey and Iran serves to benefit both its foreign and domestic policy orientations.

Image: Meeting with Prime Minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic. On the left—Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Russian Federation)


Nicole Grajewski is a MPhil Candidate in Russian & East European Studies at the University of Oxford, where her research focuses on Russia’s relationship with Iran and Central Asia. Nicole graduated from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with concentrations in Security Policy and Middle East Studies. She has previously conducted field research in Kazakhstan and has held positions at the U.S. Department of State, the Hudson Institute, and CNN. Follow her on Twitter.

One comment

  • Great analysis. Out of the three potential allies, I’m most interested in how this dynamic affects Turkey. Given the ongoing divisions in Turkish society (e.g. between Erdogan and Gulen supporters), Erdogan’s recent autocratic moves and the dissension they provoked, and majority Sunni population, I wonder how far Erdogan can push in this alliance?

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