Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) hold a joint press conference following the Turkey-Russia-Iran trilateral talks on the recent incidents in Aleppo, in Moscow, Russia on December 20, 2016
After the Dec. 29 announcement that Russia and Turkey had reached an agreement on a nationwide cease-fire in Syria, the United Nations Security Council on Dec. 31 unanimously approved a resolution welcoming the new effort to help resolve the Syrian crisis. Such unanimous international support, together with the overall effective implementation of the cease-fire by the concerned parties on the ground since Dec. 30, raises suggestions that this initiative is different from previous failed peace efforts.
As Moscow and Ankara were busy preparing the ground for the implementation of the cease-fire deal, one important question is that of Iran’s role in the process. After all, Iran and Russia have been strong supporters of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Moreover, before the announcement of the cease-fire deal, there were meetings in Moscow on Dec. 20 between the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran that resulted in an eight-point statement on how to jointly solve the Syrian conflict. Thus, does the cease-fire deal between Moscow and Ankara mean that Iran is being ignored and that a new framework for conflict resolution in Syria has been established? The short answer is a resolute "no."
The terms of the Security Council resolution are not in contradiction with what was agreed to in the trilateral Dec. 20 meeting, but in fact a continuation of the Moscow Declaration. Points such as guaranteeing humanitarian access to all disputed territories, the necessity of finding a political solution for the conflict, excluding the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) from the cease-fire and choosing Kazakhstan as the host country for the upcoming talks between the Syrian government and the opposition are among the most important similarities between the trilateral statement and the Security Council resolution.
Moreover, to better understand the dynamics at play, it is necessary to review the role Russia played in preparing the conditions for the cease-fire deal. In broad terms, it could be argued that the Dec. 20 meeting in Moscow was in fact not a trilateral mechanism between Russia, Iran and Turkey to find a consensual solution on Syria, but an attempt by Moscow to mediate between Tehran and Ankara and move them closer to each other. This is driven by how Moscow sees almost all of its goals in Syria as having been achieved now that eastern Aleppo has been returned to government control.
Indeed, Russia has been successful not only in preserving the security of its military bases in western Syria, but also in terms of strengthening its influence in the country and even extending its formal military presence, which guarantees its long-term access to the Mediterranean Sea. By standing with the Syrian army until full victory in the all-important battle for Aleppo, Moscow also projected an image of itself as a genuinely reliable ally. Russia was furthermore successful in portraying itself as one of the few great powers that still has the ability to conduct military operations in remote areas. Hence, since Russia has “won” the war, it now wants to win the peace.
Under these circumstances, Russia in the first phase could successfully help Iran and Turkey find common ground on the Syrian crisis and then concentrate its efforts on further proceeding with a political solution together with Turkey. As such, it could be argued that Iran’s current approach toward the Syrian issue is effectively pursued through the gates of Russia.
In this vein, although there have been some points of concern in Iran regarding Turkey’s policy toward Syria, it seems that these concerns have been at least partly eased.
First, Iran has long been insisting that some of the groups Turkey has been supporting in Syria are “terrorists” and that this must change for a cease-fire agreement to work. The primary Iranian concern in this regard is Ankara’s alleged links to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its apparent support of Ahrar al-Sham, another militant Salafi group. As was clear in both the Moscow Declaration and the Russia-Turkey cease-fire deal, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its affiliates are excluded from the cessation of hostilities while Ahrar al-Sham’s declared rejection of the accord effectively makes it a legitimate target. Hence, in practical terms, Ankara appears to have accepted what Iran has long been insisting on.
Second, it seems that Turkey has made other important concessions, given its adherence to two important Iranian red lines. These include Turkey’s refraining from insisting on Assad’s removal as a precondition for peace talks and also Turkey's refraining from demanding that certain Iran-backed groups, particularly Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, be listed as groups not allowed to be present in Syria. There was no formal reference to Hezbollah in the Moscow Declaration or the Dec. 31 Security Council resolution. Moreover, members of Assad’s government will take part in the upcoming talks in Kazakhstan.
Third, although Iran still has concerns regarding Turkey's operation in northern Syria, it appears that as long as the operation is limited to fighting the Islamic State and also the Kurds in the area and does not include some new areas — particularly Raqqa — Iran could tolerate it. This is because Tehran and Ankara have a shared interest in preventing more Kurdish autonomy in the region, since it could potentially ignite sentiments among Kurdish communities within their own borders. Moreover, some feel that after Turkey conducted a heavy operation entailing considerable financial and human costs in northern Syria, there should be a face-saving solution for Ankara. In this vein, allowing the forces Ankara backs to keep control over al-Bab — at least until the conclusion of peace negotiations — could be regarded as such a measure.
All in all, it now seems that the best way forward for Iran and Turkey alike is to continue to communicate with each other on the Syrian crisis. Among the many players involved in Syria, Iran has the greatest shared interests with Turkey. Given that the nature of their relationship in Syria to date can best be characterized as a form of rivalry rather than enmity, points of disagreements could be addressed through the adoption of more pragmatism. In contrast, if Saudi Arabia, for instance, was part of the nascent peace process, the reaching of an understanding could be almost impossible due to the severe ideological confrontation between Tehran and Riyadh. As such, seemingly aware of the latter, Russia appears to have for now limited the Syrian stage to just Iran and Turkey.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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