Tomorrow, three presidents – all facing increased US sanctions and pressure – will meet in the city of Tabriz in Iran. For the first time, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will host the ongoing trilateral meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The main topic for discussion is the fate of Syria and the three countries’ military operations in the last remaining opposition holdouts.
Two ECFR experts, Ellie Geranmayeh on Iran and Asli Aydintasbas on Turkey, set out the significance of this meeting.
Iran’s three-pronged approach
For Iran, this meeting will be important for three reasons.
First, it draws regional and international attention to its political role in the Middle East. Iran will use this as a platform to project strong relations with Turkey and Russia at a time when its foes – Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States – are looking to persuade international actors to isolate Iran.
Iran will look for opportunities to expand good will and economic ties to Russia and Turkey
Second, Iran wants to secure favourable conditions in any future Syrian settlement and will want to preserve its gains on the ground. Following recent diplomatic shuttling between the United States, Russia, and Israel, rumours have circulated that, through its outreach with both Moscow and Damascus, the US has been looking to squeeze Iran out of Syria. Iran will wish to maintain and defend its position on the ground in Syria. Iran and Turkey have long supported opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. But Tehran was quick to reach out to Erdogan and offer his government support in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup attempt. The frictions between the US and Turkey following the coup, including recent US sanctions against the country, have created more space for Iran and Turkey to cooperate on both regional security and economic policies.
Third, Iran will look for opportunities to expand good will and economic ties to Russia and Turkey at a time when all countries are grappling with the consequences of US sanctions. Once US secondary sanctions are reimposed in November, Iran’s oil exports are expected to significantly reduce. Both Russia and Turkey can be helpful economic partners for Iran to minimise the damage done.
Iran and Russia have reportedly been in talks over increased Russian investment in the Iranian energy sector to compensate for European companies that have left the market in response to looming US sanctions. Turkish state banks can play an important role in providing Iran with financial channels denied to it by other international banks. Turkey also imports oil from Iran – something which Tehran wants to see continue.
Make no mistake! When the presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran meet in Tabriz this week, they will neither have the same vision for Syria nor be on the same page about the impending battle of Idlib. Between smiles and handshakes, an uncomfortable discussion on Idlib is likely to take place among the three.
What does Ankara want? Stability and peaceful transition in Syria but also protection for the Sunnis who have fled the regime since 2011 and moved north to Idlib. Ankara fears that an all-out offensive on the city would push millions of refugees towards the Turkish border and damage its carefully calibrated relations with various Sunni opposition groups. It could also derail the administrative structures and infrastructure development that Turkey has been building in the Euphrates Shield pocket of Syria controlled by Turkish military.
Do not be fooled by the warm photo-op from the summit
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long held the view that the Assad regime is illegitimate and, despite a begrudging acceptance of the regime’s wartime gains over the past two years, Ankara is in no mood to facilitate an Assad’s victory in Idlib.
Instead, Erdogan will hope to get a consensus in Tabriz for a phased operation in Idlib, allowing Turkish forces to root out radicals and al-Qaeda members from the rest of the Sunni opposition. Turkey also hopes that a slow-building military offensive would give enough time for it to prepare the Euphrates Shield zone for new refugees.
So do not be fooled by the warm photo-op from the summit. At a time of heightened tensions with the United States – over Washington’s support for Syrian Kurds and its decision to impose sanctions on Turkish officials for the imprisonment of US citizens – Erdogan will be determined to show the world that the Astana process works and that Turkey has other alternatives to its beleaguered alliance with the US.
But in reality there is unease that the Syrian-led military offensive in Idlib will result in a humanitarian catastrophe and forever alter the dynamics of Syrian war – in favour of the regime.
When all is said and done, the question is: what will the final compromise on Syria’s last rebel stronghold mean for the endgame in Syria? For Ankara, none of the options look good.