Trilateral meeting between Iran, Russia & Turkey FMs

Is Iran getting the short end of the stick in the Syrian crisis?

Iranian Diplomacy- Since the early days of the formation of an Iran-Russia-Turkey axis, aimed to put an end to the Syrian crisis, Iranian commentators have been concerned with consequences of Turkey’s involvement in the partnership and its implications for Tehran’s role.

Knowing about Turkey’s level of influence both on field developments in Syria and on opposition groups, coopting Ankara into the Iran-Russia alliance will bring about significant shifts in the state of war in Syria.

Considering the existing differences at the strategic level between Tehran and Ankara over Syria and the fate of Bashar Assad, Turkey’s membership in the new alliance means Tehran and Ankara have decided to reconcile their differences in Syria for the moment, owing to Moscow’s intermediation.

At first glance, this might appear in the interest Iran. After all, engaging Turkey can neutralize threats against Bashar Assad from the opposition side. Ceasefire in Syria and a shift towards expulsion of ISIS from Syria, both fruits of Turkey’s collaboration, have been the biggest achievements for Iran. The procedure may even help keep Assad at power in the long run and after political negotiations.

Nonetheless, developments in the recent weeks, particularly after the trilateral meeting in Moscow, ring the alarms about gradual marginalization of Iran and Tehran’s ceding the helm of security affairs to Ankara and Moscow.

The recent ceasefire in Syria provides us with telling evidence about this likely trend, since Ankara and Moscow were explicitly named as truce brokers. Kremlin might have mentioned Iran as a key force in sealing the truce, but Iran’s marginalization in at the ceasefire’s operational level and from the list of intermediaries is not negligible.

In the meantime, Russia has been providing air support for the Turkish Army engaged in the Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria. Although ISIS/Daesh has been officially named as the target of the operation, it is clear that Syrian Kurdish groups, who have carved out autonomous ‘cantons’ for themselves near the borders of Turkey and enjoy US’ support, are an equally important target.

A likely continuation of air support for Turkey’s operation in northern Syria will help Ankara achieve its strategic goals and consequently provide it with an ideal tactical and strategic foothold in Syria, a scenario that can turn the tide in favor of Syria’s northern neighbor. Iran has remarkably kept silent against joint Moscow-Ankara operation in northern Syria. Obviously, Moscow appreciates Turkey’s cooperation in the Syrian dilemma, so much so that even assassination of it ambassador to Ankara has failed to undermine bilateral ties.

For Moscow, in its pursuit a strategy of southward expansion, Ankara is a much more valuable partner compared with Tehran. Seeking revival of its hegemony, security dynamics of Central Europe and Caucasus, where Turkey is a weighty player, are of increasing importance for Russia. After all, Moscow views Georgia and Ukraine as key battlefronts against NATO’s expansion of its sphere of influence. And Turkey is in the center of this overlapping sphere of NATO and Russia, hence its increasing importance for Kremlin. Considering that Turkey boasts the second powerful army in the NATO alliance, operation-wise, its non-cooperation can seriously impede Russia’s regional ambitions.

The expanding ties between Turkey and Russia have even caused concern among Western countries, particularly the United States. As a NATO member, Turkey’s increasing intimacy with Russia can cause security concerns for other members of alliance. NATO’s efforts to draw Turkey back into its own camp may also have implications for the state of affairs in Syria, and for Iran, since such efforts will involve further concessions for Ankara. Russia, in turn, will sweeten its offers to Turkey, which might result in further marginalization of Iran in the Iran-Russia-Turkey axis, and provide a more powerful leverage for Ankara.

This is a scenario likely to change if further news about the Moscow meeting between foreign ministers of Ankara, Moscow and Tehran leaks out, or after the upcoming talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. However, Turkey’s increasing weight in the trilateral partnership is a clear trend. Russians have so far shown no objection to Turkey’s pursuit of its objectives in Syria, and place the priority on cooperation with the country.

If the scenario turns out to be true, it will be an alarm for Iran who has maintained its position on Syria for the past five years. On January 3rd, advisor to Supreme Leader of Iran Ali-Akbar Velayati said that Iran will not step back from its support for the Axis of Resistance in Syria. Velayati’s remarks can be a warning both to Turkey and Russia, and to policy-makers about the turn of events against Iran’s interests.

* This is an abridged translation of an op-ed published in Tabnak, a website affiliated with former commander of IRGC Mohsen Rezaei. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Iranian Diplomacy’s editorial policy.