Can Tabriz talks usher in a Turkey-Iran-Russia axis?

Any resolution in Syria begun as a result of the Tabriz meeting would notably lack another outside player, the United States.

What happens after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rohani in Tabriz on September 7? How will the meeting affect Turkey’s relationship with the United States?

Ankara and Washington are increasingly at odds although the United States has long regarded Turkey, NATO’s sole Muslim member, as a stalwart regional ally.

Could the September 7 meeting be a game changer? Erdogan, Putin and Rohani will have much to discuss. All three countries are subject to US sanctions, which are inflicting varying degrees of suffering on their economies.

Turkey is the most recent member of the trio to feel Washington’s economic wrath. Defence issues are roiling the bilateral relationship; members of Congress and the Trump administration have objected to Turkey’s plan to acquire a Russian S-400 antiaircraft system even as Turkey receives Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets. American lawmakers are worried that if Turkey deploys the S-400, it would expose weaknesses in the F-35 stealth aircraft and Turkey would share the vulnerabilities with Russia.

Another element of worsening relations is Turkey’s detention of US evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson, indicted on charges of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation, which Ankara blames for the failed 2016 coup.

Consequently, on August 1, the US government announced sanctions focusing on Turkish individuals and companies allegedly involved in corruption or human rights abuses. The sanctions specifically affect Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu. Their departments are blamed for the incarceration of Brunson, whom US President Donald Trump has labelled a “patriot hostage.”

Trump has doubled tariffs on Turkish metal imports and reiterated he would give no concessions for Brunson’s release. Deteriorating US-Turkish relations have been a prime factor in the Turkish lira’s decline, about 40% this year.

While no agenda for the Tabriz meeting has been published, it is likely that the economic damage inflicted by unilateral US sanctions will be a priority.

If mitigating the consequences of US fiscal punishment is a prime issue for all three countries, another factor is the American military presence in the Middle East. Both Russia and Iran are staunchly opposed to it.

On August 12, Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan signed the Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea. Significantly for Washington, the agreement stipulates that no outside countries would be allowed to establish military bases on the Caspian. This would effectively block the United States and NATO from a regional presence.

Both Iran and Russia have an interest in blunting US naval force projection — Iran in the Persian Gulf and Russia in the Black Sea. Turkey is effectively an arbitrator in the latter because the 1936 Montreux Convention recognises Turkish sovereignty over the Bosporus and Dardanelles and stipulates conditions for the Black Sea naval presence of foreign powers. These constrictions have stymied US military ambitions in the past, most notably in the 2008 Georgian and 2014 Ukrainian crises. At the time, the US Navy was unable to “fly the flag” as it wanted.

Turkey’s view of current US policy was made very clear by Erdogan in an opinion piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago. He warned Washington to “give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical” and urged it to “come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives.” All of this must happen “before it is too late,” Erdogan said.

In the military sphere, these “alternatives” could see Turkey downgrade participation in NATO or abandon it altogether. It could turn towards the Russian- and Chinese-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation security alliance.

As for fiscal alternatives, Turkey could abandon efforts to join the European Union and seek affiliation with either the Eurasian Economic Union or BRICS — the grouping of the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Turkey, Iran and Russia have the potential to achieve an accord on the Syrian war. However, any resolution begun at the Tabriz meeting would notably lack another outside player in Syria, the United States.

The stakes for the US regional presence are substantial as Turkey, Iran and Russia confer.

John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.