Turkey must avoid Iran impasse in Syria
Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders are set to meet in Sochi, Russia on Nov. 22 to review their positions regarding their cooperation in Syria. The meeting will be between three presidents, Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani. The foreign ministers of the three countries are expected to meet a day before to work details out in preparation for a decision.
The three countries have been cooperating for a gradual ceasefire in Syria within the framework of meetings in the Kazakh capital Astana since January this year, and the first agreement was reached over a de-escalation zone in September. So far, four of such regions have been formed to control ceasefire between forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition forces, excluding groups designated as terrorists by all parties, which are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups. The last of those regions have been established in Idlib, northwest of Syria and very close to the Turkish border.
The presence of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in a sector of the city, from which Turkey has to clear, letting Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels to take control has already caused a quarrel to erupt between Turkey and the U.S., when the U.S. accused Turkey of turning a blind eye to their escape to other parts, even including Turkey. A recent report by the BBC on a U.S.-monitored deal between ISIL and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to let some 300 ISIL militants out of Raqqa with their weapons and ammunition further complicated the story, raising questions about their destinations and future victims of those ISIL militants, whom the U.S.-led coalition spokesman called “potential terrorists,” as if it was an excuse. Turkey and Russia, which was accused by the U.S. of protecting pro-Iranian militia, immediately reacted to the U.S. and accused Washington of giving cover to ISIL terrorists.
But there are more problems in Syria, as all actors are setting up their positions before the Geneva talks, seeking to find a political solution to the war-torn country, especially after U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin have jointly announced that they rule out any military solution and focused on a political one only. When Erdoğan said that it was acceptable if all sides withdrew their military forces for a pure political solution, it was perceived as though he was only talking about Russia, the U.S. and its ally on ground, the People’s Protection Units’ (YPG), which is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). There is also Iran’s heavy presence in Syria, like in Iraq. It is not only the unknown thousands of troops belonging to the Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, under the command of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, one of the secret actors of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. There are also a number of pro-Iranian groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighting on behalf of Assad, having backing from Iran. The outlook irritates not only Turkey but Israel, perhaps more than Turkey. When it irritates Israel, it irritates the U.S. with links to American domestic policy.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation, who complained of Iranian influence over his country through Hezbollah, brought Israel and Saudi Arabia closer, amid ongoing purges in the kingdom which can be perceived as a palace coup.
Turkey’s acute concern regarding Iran is about the Idlib region. Ankara doesn’t want the demographics of the region, which is next to a very sensitive area of its borders, to be changed to Kurds or Syrian Alawites, who have their allegiance to the Assad regime.
That is likely to be one of the issues in Sochi. But there is a delicate detail there: the Quds Force, or the Revolutionary Guards, is tied to Iran’s Supreme Leader, according to the Iranian constitution. Thus, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might have more say than Rouhani on the today and future of Iran’s military presence in Syria. It should be kept in mind that Putin decided to intervene in the war in Syria late summer 2015, changing the entire course of events, after Khamenei sent Soleimani to Moscow as his special envoy to convince Putin.
Erdoğan has been saying that if any terrorist groups are invited to the Geneva talks, meaning the YPG in this case, Turkey will not take part in them. That might be a risky step to take as it would be to the best advantage of not only the YPG, thus PKK, but Iran, too. Turkey and Iran have been in close cooperation in a number of fields recently, and have given a successful example of that against the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq. But for Syria, Turkey must avoid an Iranian impasse.