ANKARA (AFP): The deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkiye, Syria and Iran will meet in Moscow next week for low-level talks ahead of a long-planned meeting between the countries’ four foreign ministers.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian asked if Tehran could join the three-way talks as a fourth party, and Ankara agreed.
“Astana is the only surviving format (to address) Syria anyway,” Cavusoglu said at a joint news conference with Amir-Abdollahian.
“A meeting at the level of foreign ministers could be held at a later stage, at a time that we all see fit,” he said.
In a joint statement after the April 25-26, 2019 meeting in Astana, Iran, Russia and Turkiye reaffirmed their “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.
Abdollahian said Tehran was willing to help resolve the disagreements between Ankara and Damascus under the four-way format, especially regarding the withdrawal of the Turkish military from northern Syria.
Iran and Turkiye have taken opposing stances on Syria since the outbreak of the conflict.
This comes a week after the Russian Ambassador to Iraq, Elbrus Kutrashev, said during Irbil Forum 2023 that it was “high time” for a reconciliation between Syria and Turkiye.
Russia sponsored a normalization path between Syrian and Turkish defense ministers and intelligence chiefs in Moscow in December in a bid to facilitate the rapprochement process between the two countries, marking the first high-level meeting since the war in Syria began in 2011.
But Tehran announced its uneasiness about being sidelined from this meeting and emphasized the importance of a political solution in Syria.
During the meeting, the defense ministers discussed counterterrorism efforts in Syria and agreed to continue their three-way meetings to encourage stability in the region.
After devastating earthquakes struck southern Turkiye and northwestern Syria in February, Ankara enabled the delivery of international aid to quake victims in Syria. About 475 aid trucks have passed through border gates, while Turkiye also opened its airspace to planes carrying aid to the quake zone.
Iran also set up a field hospital and established a tent city in quake-hit Adiyaman, and also sent a search and rescue team of 150 people.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is also expected to visit Turkiye to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Gulriz Sen, an expert on Turkiye-Iran relations from the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, said Tehran’s red lines in the Syrian civil war remain unchanged, with an emphasis on ensuring the survival of the Assad regime and the territorial integrity of Syria.
“Iran is strictly opposed to the military presence of the US and Turkiye in Syria and calls for the withdrawal of these forces to ensure that the Assad regime establishes control in every inch of the country,” she told Arab News.
Sen said that Iran wants permanent influence in Syria, its only Arab ally, through close strategic and economic links.
“To this aim, it seeks to be a power broker in this newly emerging diplomatic talk that will coordinate the rapprochement between Turkiye and Syria. Tehran’s first-ever direct involvement will help her closely monitor and shape the process without feeling left out and waiting to be informed by other parties through follow-up meetings,” she added.
According to Sen, Iran’s inclusion in the talks will not change Russia’s decisive role, but will likely strengthen Syria’s position on the swift withdrawal of Turkish armed forces from the northwestern parts of Syria, the return of Idlib to Assad’s control, and the elimination of jihadi groups regarded by Iran as “takfiri terrorists,” with a more concerted approach from Tehran and Damascus.
“In any case, the talks will not reach a conclusion until the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkiye in May, yet the Astana format now will incorporate Syria in this final push for a diplomatic settlement,” she said.
Francesco Siccardi, senior program manager and senior research analyst at Carnegie Europe, agrees.
“We should temper expectations from this meeting, which was supposed to take place earlier in the year but was delayed by hesitations on the Turkish end — and then, of course, by the Feb. 6 earthquakes,” he told Arab News.
Siccardi expects to see moderate progress after the meeting, a continuation of the progressive rapprochement that has been underway since 2022.
“But the pace and depth of Turkiye’s involvement will be dictated by President Erdogan’s electoral interests,” he added.
According to Siccardi, the earthquake has partially altered Erdogan’s calculations regarding Syria, making it imperative that Syria’s borders remain sealed to refugees trying to cross into Turkiye from Idlib; as well as making incendiary rhetoric on the Kurdish question less appealing to an electorate still shattered by the destruction of the earthquake.
“The issue of the return of Syrian refugees remains important, as upticks of anti-Syrian rhetoric are visible in areas of Turkiye most affected by the earthquake,” he said.
It is unclear whether Ankara will change its Syria policy completely before the results of the elections are known.
But the refugee question is still a central issue ahead of the elections considering the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and deteriorating living conditions because of the high inflation rates and unemployment.
The main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who will challenge Erdogan in the May 14 poll, is expected to accelerate the normalization process with the Assad regime, and to seek ways for the voluntary return of almost 4 million Syrian refugees to their homeland.
However, many Syrians in Turkiye are still unwilling to return for fear of persecution while Assad remains in power.