The sudden decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from eastern Syria has shocked the Middle East, particularly Iran, Russia and Turkey which all play a major role in Syria and who have been meeting frequently about resolving the conflict there. In the last two weeks, as Trump was ramping up to announce he was leaving, the foreign ministers of the three countries met in Geneva and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani went to Turkey. These countries could be on a collision course now in how to partition eastern Syria as the US leaves, but more unites them than divides them.
Iran and Russia are the main backers of the Syrian regime whereas Turkey ostensibly backs the Syrian opposition. However, in recent months these three countries have grown increasingly closer. Initially this was because they all opposed the US role in eastern Syria. Turkey opposed the US working the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Iran objected to the US role in eastern Syria because Iran not only excoriates US meddling in Syria in general, but also because of tensions with the Trump administration. Senior administration officials, including John Bolton and Washington's main Syria diplomat James Jeffrey, indicated the US would be staying in Syria for the long term and would seek to have Iran leave the country. Then Trump decided to leave, and Iran sees a major victory. Russia also opposed the US role in Syria.
Turkey's main concern in Syria is the YPG. Turkey will not leave Syria "to the fate of the PKK," the Turkish president said this week. Now Turkey has massed troops at the border with eastern Syria as the US indicates it will coordinate its withdrawal with Ankara. On December 12, Turkey claimed there was no ISIS threat in Syria, but now it is advancing a narrative that its involvement in Syria is about fighting ISIS and the YPG. Turkey's foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the YPG must not benefit from US withdrawal. He also indicated that the current joint patrols with the US near Manbij would lead to some kind of road map, apparently meaning Turkey or those it supports might have a role in Manbij soon. Around 15,000 Syrian rebels may help Turkey's offensive into the partly Kurdish area of northern and eastern Syria. Some of these rebel groups were seen driving toward the frontline on Monday.
Iran's state media and politicians have a different view on eastern Syria, as does Iran's Syrian regime ally. In India, the Syrian ambassador said that the US had failed in Syria and was leaving. He claimed Syria had defeated ISIS, not the US. He emphasized the Syria-Iran-Russia alliance, and noted that Russian troops were in Syria legally, unlike the US which was "illegally" in Syria.
Iran and Turkey both slammed Israel this week, and in both countries, Israel is viewed as supporting Kurdish aspirations in Syria, which unites Turkey and Iran on this issue. Rouhani said the US was more isolated than ever as it withdraws but cautioned that "the Zionists" would continue the "US hostile plots against the Iranian nation." Turkey has responded harshly to Israel recently, with the president, foreign minister and defense ministry slamming Israel. On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry accused Israel of "baseless" claims after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Turkey of massacring Kurds. Iranian diplomats have asserted that Israel loses through the US withdrawing support for Kurdish forces in eastern Syria.
Syrian state media and Turkish media have also emphasized opposition to France's continued role in eastern Syria. France is part of the US-led coalition and appears set to stay in eastern Syria as the US leaves. Syrian rebel groups told Turkey's Anadolu Agency that they opposed France staying. Syrian diplomats said the same.
Now Iran's media, which can be interpreted as the Tehran regime's official stance, emphasizes several goals in Syria. It highlights the Kurdish concern at Washington's "stab" in the back. Iranian diplomats say they understand Turkey's concerns about the YPG but that any operation by Iran's "Turkish brothers" must be done with the "consent of Damascus." Iran opposes Kurdish autonomy, but also a major Turkish invasion. At the same time, Iran's Press TV highlights that the YPG is open to the Syrian government "protecting Syria's sovereign borders," meaning an agreement between the YPG and Damascus. Such an agreement already exists in a way because there are Syrian regime forces in eastern Syria in Hasakah and in Qamishli.
Turkey says its operation to push into eastern Syria and clear the border area of YPG is ready. Iran says that it should be at the consent of the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, Russia is selling the S-400 to Ankara. In this triangle each player has leverage. The S-400 deal gives Turkey leverage. Turkey also has a sanctions exemption for trade with Iran, which Iran wants. Iran and Russia also recently held a joint military meeting in Tehran on Monday.
The goal of Russia will be to broker a deal as it did in Idlib. The goal of the Syrian regime will be to get back as much of its country as it can, easily and quickly. Iran's goal is to grab influence. Turkey's desire is to take the border area without clashing with the regime. For that to happen, Russia and the Syrian regime must give Turkey permission to use Syria's airspace, as they have in the past in operations when Turkey led against the YPG in Afrin.
All evidence points to these countries cooperating in eastern Syria for now. It is a complex cooperation, but their joint opposition to the US and other mutual economic interests, as well as Turkish and Iranian antipathy for Israel, and concerns about Kurdish autonomy, lend themselves to peaceful discussions, not a new war. The Kurdish groups also know they can't face all these countries and will need an agreement with someone to protect their areas.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.