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In a recent statement, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the United States is working against the interests of Turkey, Iran and maybe Russia in northern Syria, where it is sending military aid to the Syrian Kurdish militia. “If the United States says they are sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party in parliament. “It means you (the US) have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.” By galvanizing a common front of anti-U.S. sentiment in all three countries, Erdogan seeks to downplay Ankara’s escalating tension with Russia and Iran and repair ties. If he pulls it off, Washington will have to deal with a less compromising Turkey shortly before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Ankara.
Erdogan’s statement comes at a time as the tension between Turkey, Russia and Iran over Syria is mounting. The three countries forged a partnership in Syria and have been leading the Syria talks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Frustrated with the U.S.’s cooperation with the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, Ankara turned to Moscow and Tehran for help. Turkey set up “observation posts” in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province—the last stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition—as part of efforts by the three countries to establish deescalation zones. But Turkey’s real intention was to rein in the YPG, which controls the Afrin region next to Idlib. Turkey hoped that it would move into Afrin and its Astana partners would look the other way. Ankara thought it got its wish when Russia, which controls the skies over Afrin, finally gave the green light to the Turkish military incursion into the Kurdish enclave. Iran and the Assad regime acquiesced to Turkey’s move.
But the recent developments on the ground suggest the way forward might not be as smooth and the partnership with Russia and Iran might not be as strong as Ankara had hoped. Russia is frustrated with Turkey’s failure to roll back the Al Qaeda–linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham’s influence in Idlib while Iran and the Assad regime have grown increasingly uncomfortable with Turkey’s move into Afrin. After Turkey’s recent military incursion into the Kurdish enclave, the Assad regime allowed the YPG to deploy reinforcements to the area through regime-controlled territory. This week, Iran asked Turkey to stop its military offensive in Syria, claiming the operation was a breach of Syrian sovereignty and would increase the tension further. Earlier, the regime and Iran-backed forces attacked a Turkish convoy in Aleppo. Last week, opposition forces downed the Russian plane using a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) in Idlib. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham claimed responsibility for the attack. Some in Moscow are blaming Turkey for the attack, pointing to what they see as Turkey’s murky relationship with the militant group.