The Rise of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian Alliance – By Britt Gillette
In early September, Russia, Turkey, and Iran met in Tehran to discuss the future of Syria. It was just one of many meetings in the past several years between three of the most powerful nations in Middle Eastern politics.
In a mid-September meeting, Russia and Turkey agreed to carry out coordinated military patrols on the borders of a “demilitarized” buffer zone between Syrian troops and rebel forces in Syria’s Idlib province. Idlib is the last major stronghold of rebel and jihadist groups trying to overthrow Assad in a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions. For Russia and Iran, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete the military victory they crave in Syria’s civil war after almost 8 years of fighting. As the war winds down, these three powers will decide the future of Syria.
At first glance, Russia, Turkey, and Iran make unlikely allies. For instance, Turkey is a Sunni Muslim nation, while Iran is a Shiite Muslim nation. Also, Turkey is a member of NATO, an alliance formed specifically to counter Russian military aggression. These three nations have many differences and a number of competing interests. Yet, with each passing day, they become closer and closer. Why? Syria.
The ongoing Syrian civil war highlights a number of overlapping interests for these nations. Understanding those interests is the key to understanding why these nations are coming together. So let’s look at what each nation seeks to gain.
Why does Russia care so much about Syria? Several reasons.
First, Russia maintains an important naval facility in Tartus, Syria. It’s the Russian Navy’s only overseas base, vital for repair and refueling of the Russian Navy. As we’ve seen, Russia will fight to keep its naval installation in Tartus.
Second, Syria has long been an ally of Russia and the Soviet Union. Dating back to the Cold War, Syria’s ruling Assad family has been aligned with Russia against western influence in the region. Russia wants to keep Assad in power and maintain its regional presence. Syria has also been a lucrative market for the sale of Russian weapons and commodities, and Russia doesn’t want to lose that market.
Third, Russia wants to do more than maintain its presence in the Middle East. It wants to expand it. Russia’s military entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 turned the tide of the war. It clinched eventual victory for Assad. This means Russia will maintain enormous influence over Assad and Syria.
Finally, Russia’s alliance with Turkey and Iran serves to strengthen its influence in the Middle East, but it also serves another purpose. The warming relationship between Turkey and Russia (and Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan) divides NATO. It strains the relationship between Turkey and its western NATO allies. So it’s easy to see why Russia has such a vested interest in Turkey as well as Syria.
What does Syria mean to Turkey? A lot. A massive attack on rebels in Idlib (home to around 3 million people) could spark a humanitarian crisis on its border. It could unleash a nightmare scenario where hundreds of thousands of refugees, including militants, flee toward Turkey’s border, destabilizing towns and cities under its control. Turkey already hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, and it’s sealed its borders to new entrants. Turkey wants a stable border. It wants to take advantage of Syria’s civil war and gain influence and control over Syrian territory (by backing Sunni rebel groups).
Most of all, Turkey wants to suppress Kurdish militants on its border. Turkey already has Kurdish-controlled areas on its border in northern Iraq. It wants to avoid the rise of new ones. This puts it in direct conflict with the United States, which is backing Kurdish rebels in Syria. This has driven Turkey closer to Russia and led it to play Russia and the NATO powers against each other to its own benefit.
Why is Syria so important to Iran? Iran has decades of close ties to Syria going back to the 1979 Islamic revolution, and both champion the Shiite Muslim branch of Islam. Iran already has regional footholds in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and it wants to keep and expand its influence in a nation neighboring Israel and Lebanon.
A presence in Syria gives Iran land access to the Mediterranean Sea, a staging ground for Hezbollah and other proxies to attack Israel, and access to Israel’s border for Iranian armed forces to launch a future invasion of Israel. Iran wants to keep Syria allied against Israel, and since Hezbollah and advisors from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard have helped Assad throughout the civil war, they’re well positioned to take advantage if he retains power.
What the Future Holds
After almost 8 years of conflict, the Syrian civil war is coming to a close. The aftermath will see Syria carved into spheres of influence. Russia, Turkey, and Iran will dominate those spheres, and all three countries will remain in Syria. This makes it likely they’ll continue to work together to avoid conflict and pursue their shared interests. So why should you care? Because the new Syria might be foreshadowing the soon fulfillment of Bible prophecy. The shared interests of Russia, Turkey, and Iran could lead them to launch an invasion prophesied 2,600 years ago.
The Ezekiel 38-39 War
Six centuries before the crucifixion of Jesus, the prophet Ezekiel foretold a future invasion of Israel. He said it will occur in the last days (Ezekiel 38:16). He said it will come from north of Israel (Ezekiel 38:15; Ezekiel 39:2), and he said it will involve a coalition of nations led by Russia (Ezekiel 38:2) that includes Iran and Turkey (Ezekiel 38:5-6). Never before have these three nations been in alliance. But today, all three sit on Israel’s northern border.