Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosts his counterparts from Russia and Iran Wednesday for a second trilateral summit on Syria. The three, whose countries have a significant military presence in Syria, are increasingly cooperating to resolve the civil war under the auspices of the so-called “Astana Process.”
The deepening cooperation comes in the face of intense rivalries.
“Since 2011, Ankara's sole purpose was to dethrone Assad,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat, who served widely in the region. “Whereas, Russia and Iran came to Syria upon Assad’s invitation to keep him in place and this is a contradiction,” he added, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
All sides have so far managed their differences, out of an awareness, analysts suggest, that is based on the realization they need one another’s cooperation in efforts to secure their regional goals and ultimately bring an end to the seven-year conflict.
Under the “Astana Process,” so-called deconfliction zones have been created across Syria, in which rebel groups are concentrated. Ankara, with its close ties to those rebel groups, has worked closely with Moscow within the process. Wednesday’s meeting is expected to focus on the Syrian enclave of Idlib. Turkish forces have been steadily increasing their deployment there, creating observation posts to monitor the deconfliction zone.
The Turkish-led military campaign against the YPG Syrian-Kurdish militia is also expected to be on the agenda of Wednesday’s summit. Ankara accuses the militia of being a terrorist group linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey.
Last month, Turkish forces ousted the YPG from the Syrian enclave of Afrin, but Erdogan has pledged to expand the military operation across northern Syria up to the Iraqi border. Erdogan is expected to seek to assuage any concerns from Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani.
“The limits of the [Turkish military] operation [in Syria] will depend on the reaction of other actors who are stakeholders in Syria,” predicted Sinan Ulgen of Brussels-based Carnegie Europe, a research institution. With Russian air defenses currently controlling most of Syria’s airspace, Moscow up until now has given its tacit support to the offensive, allowing Turkish jets to fly with impunity in Syrian airspace in support of the operation.
Tehran has called for an end to the Turkish operation. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is expected to press his concerns over the operation in the talks with Erdogan. The two leaders are scheduled for a separate face-to-face meeting.
Analysts point out Iran is likely to be increasingly concerned about the growing number of Turkish armed forces in Syria. Tehran will be aware Turkish forces seldom withdraw once deployed in a neighboring country. Regional rivalries between the two powerful neighbors are exacerbated by sectarian tensions.
“I don't see any good relation between Erdogan and the Islamic regime of Iran because Sunni and Shia Muslims are fighting for the same land in the Middle East,” warns Iranian expert Jamshid Assadi of France’s Burgundy Business School. “They might agree on not fighting a war, but that is all.”
Tehran’s recent cooperation with Ankara over Syria is giving Iran an opportunity to further undermine Turkey’s strained ties with the United States. That, observers say, is important for Iran, given the importance of Turkey in any new sanctions by the U.S. against Iran.
Also Rouhani, like Russia's Putin, will be aware of the looming confrontation between Turkish and U.S. forces over the Syrian town of Manbij. Erdogan has pledged to oust the Kurdish YPG militia from Manbij, where U.S. forces are also deployed. Washington sees the YPG as a key ally in its war against Islamic State. Sources in Ankara have suggested the Turkish-led operation is as much about removing the U.S. presence in Syria as is the Kurdish militia.
Tehran, like Moscow, is also aware of the important role Ankara is playing in helping to facilitate the movement of rebels toward the region near the Turkish border.
“The Moscow-Tehran-Damascus trio wants all jihadists to seek refuge near the Turkish border, which is an extremely smart move on their part,” wrote columnist Barcin Yinanc of the Hurriyet Daily News. He warned, however, that Ankara could pay a heavy price. “There is no guarantee that these Islamist and jihadist groups will not end up hitting back at Turkey in the future.” Analysts, however, point out the priority for Ankara remains its ongoing campaign against the YPG.