by Henry Collison
Montreal—The tumultuous socio-political developments of 2016 have had their reverberations spilled over into the new year. Barely stepping into the early hours of 2017, Turkey experienced renewed bloodshed when crowds celebrating the arrival of new year at an Istanbul nightclub were gunned down by a Muslim extremist, who decided to violently protest a Muslim majority country’s adherence to the Gregorian calendar. Turkey is only one of many countries at the forefront of geopolitical shifts shaking their respective regions and beyond.
A fresh look at the underlying trends that shaped global politics in 2016 points to growing significance of an emerging alliance across Eurasia; an alliance that appears destined to influence heavily the global geopolitics in 2017.
This early stage Eurasian-based alliance is taking shape through the alignment of political and geo-strategic interests of Russia, China, Iran and by extension, those of Central Asian states. The alliance has already made its seismic reverberations felt in international relations.
Building Grand Economic Blocs
The emerging trilateral alliance of Russia, China, and Iran is economically built on China’s evolving Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, or OBOR), Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) bloc, Central Asian states’ abundant natural and energy resources, and Iran’s strategic location as an emerging trade and energy hub with a growing security role as bulwark against Saudi-inspired Wahhabi jihadism. From a national security perspective, the above trilateral alliance views Wahhabi jihadism as a strategic threat that could be manipulated by the West/NATO to wreak socio-economic havoc across the Eurasian landmass.
China’s BRI—a collection of massive infrastructure projects spanning across Eurasia that also includes global Maritime routes—is transforming much of the economic landscape in Central Asia. With Russia’s ideological blessing, Chinese investment in transportation, telecommunication, energy pipelines, universities, and logistics has revitalized trade along the ancient Silk Road, employing thousands of local citizens of respective BRI countries.
Parallel to BRI, the Russian-led EEU is an integrated single market comprised of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan with a combined GDP of USD 4 trillion. The budding economic bloc has already been approached by Asian states, including members of the ASEAN to forge free trade agreements (FTAs). Vietnam, for example, has already signed FTA with the EEU. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even extended invitation to Western European states to develop trade ties with the EEU members. The EEU enables Moscow to keep Central Asian states within its geopolitical influence while China provides much-needed cash and investment in modernizing the member states’ critical infrastructure.
An Emboldened Alliance
The leadership in the Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran trio view the current state of Western alliance as being challenged on multiple fronts to the point that it is difficult for it to sustain strategic coherence in its foreign policy. These challenges, from their perspective, include anemic economic growth, growing unemployment rates, the rise of populist politics, a weakened trans-Atlantic alliance, and a massive refugee crisis that is tearing into the fabric of Western societies, igniting racial and cultural tensions. The trio also regards the election of Donald Trump in the U.S as harbinger of further weakening of the trans-Atlantic alliance, given Trump’s introverted policies aimed at revitalizing the US economy and its manufacturing base, his disdain for NATO, which he sees as an organization that is used by U.S allies to freeload for their collective security, and his plans to forge warmer ties with Russia and perhaps even coordinate certain policies with Moscow.
Syria as a Geo-Strategic Turning Point
The decision by Russia to intervene in November 2015 in the Syrian civil war was a geopolitical jolt to the anti-Assad coalition. The anti-Assad coalition was chiefly made of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey with gradual support from Israel, particularly after Israel decided to forge a de-facto alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Jerusalem, Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara envisioned unanimously defeating Assad’s army and subsequently overthrowing his government as a decisive strategic blow to Iran and its presence in the Levant.
The enormity of the stakes involved in Syria for the Saudi-led anti-Assad coalition, and by extension for NATO, cannot be understated. The influx of tens of thousands of rebels into Syria from Turkey and Jordan and the support they received in logistics, PR, and weaponry from NATO countries—including cybersecurity support from certain Canadian institutions—underscored the significance that Assad’s ouster held for them.
Russia’s determination to defeat the anti-Assad coalition with support from Iran and Hezbollah was based on the following strategic rationale: the ouster of Assad from power and subsequent establishment of a Salafist regime in Syria under the tutelage of Turkey and Saudi Arabia would present NATO an opportunity to destabilize the Caucuses and Central Asia by encouraging, supporting, and strengthening fundamentalist Sunni groups there, thus seriously undermining vital Russian geo-political and geo-strategic interests in in its own backyard. This strategic rationale was conveniently shared by Iran and China, which have similar vital interests in the Caucuses and Central Asia and consider Wahhabi/Salafi groups to be a strategic threat. For the Russia-Iran-China trio, the magnitude of the potential threat posed by a post-Assad, Islamist Syria turned the defeat of the anti-Assad coalition into a strategic imperative.
The collapse of Aleppo in December and the city’s return to the Syrian Army was a geopolitical earthquake. The fall of Aleppo was hailed in Tehran and Moscow as a decisive victory against a powerful bloc that was intent on re-drawing the region’s map and seriously undermining their vital interests. Beijing also threw its diplomatic support to the operation to defeat the rebels in Syria, stating that the city’s recapture was in the ‘interests of regional peace and security’.
The trio saw Aleppo’s fall as a humiliation for NATO and its allies in the Middle East, namely Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They also saw their victory in Aleppo as a major PR victory against their powerful opponents in mainstream media: The PR victory involved the collapse of the narrative around Syria’s “moderate rebels”.
Following Aleppo’s fall to Assad forces, Russian, Iranian and Chinese media went on a PR offensive to demonstrate how anti-Assad rebels were far from being “moderate”, a notion that was fed continuously to the public by most Arab and Western media outlets. When the atrocities committed by anti-Assad forces against the local population were put on display on social media and independent news outlets, the “moderate” rebels lost much of their credibility. From the trio’s perspective, the collapse of the “moderate rebels” narrative came as a PR coup.
The unprecedented meeting in Moscow between Russian, Turkish, and Iranian foreign ministers following the fall of Aleppo, which took place a day after the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, was the clearest sign of a strategic about-face by President Erdogan’s government vis-à-vis his Syria policy. It was also a demonstration of Erdogan’s intent to veer his foreign policy from those of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Frustrated with what he regarded as the lack of U.S support against Turkey’s offensive in Syria to fend off formation of an independent Kurdish state, Erdogan reached out to Russia for assistance. The Russian air force is presently carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State and Kurdish guerilla fighters in support of Turkish military offensive in Syria.
Ankara and Latakia in OBOR Eurasia
Turkey’s decision to align its Syria policy with those of Russia, Iran, and by extension China, is more than a policy shift. It is, indeed, a significant geo-strategic shift in the making. Abject failure of Turkey’s post-Arab Spring foreign policy, crystalized in Syria, has led to a dangerous influx of fundamentalist Wahhabi rebels into the country, a development that has morphed into a national security threat. By pivoting its foreign policy eastward, Turkey is seeking refuge from its futile alliance with Riyadh and Doha, which, rather than an asset, has turned into a costly liability.
Joining the Tehran-Moscow-Beijing axis is a recognition by Erdogan of the long-term opportunities and benefits for the Turkish economy that are offered by Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Reciprocally for Beijing, Turkey and a stable Syria that is not run by jihadis, are an indispensable piece of a geo-strategic energy and transportation route that can stretch all the way to the Syrian port cities of Tartus and Latakia. Should Turkey’s tilt to Eurasia continue unabated, it would be a geo-strategic coup for Beijing and Moscow. As for Tehran, it would be a further step toward solidifying its strategic interests in the Middle East, the Caucuses, Central and Western Asia.
The contours of an emerging geo-strategic shift, whose reverberations will be felt across the global economy and politics, are being shaped in front of our eyes and computer screens.
Henry Collison is a Western investigative journalist currently based in London.