Iranian Diplomacy | Kaveh L. Afrasiabi: This week’s Ankara summit, featuring the presidents of Turkey, Russia, and Iran, is focused on Syria and transpires within the tripartite Astana framework that has been in existence since January, 2017 and has led to the “de-escalation zones” in Syria.
It is preceded by a bilateral Russia-Turkey meeting, kick-starting the ambitious joint nuclear plan that, for sure, deepens the Moscow-Ankara ties on a long-term basis, much like the Russian sale of S-400 system to Turkey, much to the chagrin of US and other NATO countries. The summit serves the national interests of all the three countries that have shared and or parallel interests as each other’s neighbors at a delicate time in regional and global affairs.
With respect to Russia, which has been put under siege by the West over the nerve gas Skripal case in England, the summit is a net plus for the newly-reelected President Putin, who has pledged to bring greater economic prosperity to the Russian electorate and who is keen on expanding Russia’s energy export to Europe with Turkey’s cooperation, in light of Russia’s interest in a land-based branch of the TurkStream that is presently limited to undersea branches.
For Turkey, which is eyeing to expand its military incursion inside Syria to beyond Afrin to Manbij and even to within Iraq in order to crush the threats posed by the Kurds, the summit presents an opportunity to gain regional backing for Operation Olive Branch, which has raised objections from the European quarters above all France.
Iran, on the other hand, is keen on propelling Turkey toward a more friendly approach toward Damascus, which has serious misgivings regarding Turkey’s ultimate intentions inside Syria, particularly since Turkey has relied on anti-Damascus jihadists as auxiliary force in its current military operations against the Kurdish forces in Syria. By so doing, Turkey may have opened a Pandora’s Box that it may find difficult to control in the future, depending in part on the future scope of its military operations that could potentially lead to an overstretch if not a quagmire.
For now, however, all eyes are fixed on pushing the Syrian peace talks forward, by focusing on a proposed new constitution, humanitarian assistance, and the future of Idlib, now haven to a variety of rebel groups recently pushed out of eastern Ghouta, where Turkey per the Astana process has set up several observation posts.
With an enhanced hand in northern Syria, Turkey is now a bigger player in Syria than was the case when this tripartite partnership emerged over a year ago, thus allowing President Erdogan a greater say in terms of a post-conflict Syria. The Turkish position on Syria is presently in a state of flux, with the past Ankara rhetoric on the need for President Assad’s departure mellowed considerably, without disappearing altogether, reflecting a lingering policy chasm between Ankara and Tehran, unlikely to be resolved at the Ankara summit. But, the summit can be functional in narrowing the gaps and giving regional diplomacy a chance to hammer out the existing differences.
From Iran’s vantage, the situation may be ‘calm before the storm’ in light of the US’s threat to exit the Iran nuclear deal, in which case it is important to count on Turkey’s support, which would come with some price to Ankara’s relations with the US, particularly if the US decides to slap punishment on Turkish banks and firms doing business with Iran in a post-JCPOA era. On the other hand, the close Iran-Turkey ties serve as a reminder to Washington of the unwanted costs of defecting from the nuclear deal, which has the trip wire of robust ties between Iran and nearly all its neighbors including Turkey.
Whether or not the US threat to the Iran deal serves as a Turkish bargaining chip with Iran remains to be seen, depending on the US’s next moves on Iran. At the same time, Ankara ought to realize that the success of its present military operations in Syria require Tehran’s tacit consent, otherwise the road ahead in northern Syria could be paved with more headaches for the Turkish military potentially facing stiffer opposition not only from the Syrian Kurds but also other pro-government forces, some of whom have already thrown their weights behind the Kurds. Iran is, of course, concerned about a “hegemonic” and “neo-Ottomanist” Turkey that would harbor unwanted expansionist aims in both Syria and Iraq, which can be put to rest only through Erdogan’s assurances — that are as of today not exactly forthcoming.
Of course, Turkey and Iran can advance their bilateral relations in spite of certain policy disagreements between them, so long as Ankara realizes that there are limits to Tehran’s tolerance of Turkish infringements on the sovereignty of Iran’s strategic ally in Syria. This, in turn, calls for a self-limiting Turkish campaign in Syria, which will likely be advanced by President Rouhani at the Ankara summit.