Syrian regime uses lighter tone with Turkey over Iranian push
Enab Baladi – Mamoun al-Bustani
The tripartite summit of the leaders of the guarantor states of the Astana Process on the settlement in Syria (Russia, Turkey, and Iran) was concluded in the Iranian capital Tehran on 19 July. The summit’s final communiqué contained no distinctions from the outputs of previous summits and those of previous meetings of delegations of states guarantors of Astana held in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan.
However, a visit by the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, to Tehran, where the summit is being held, carried various messages that may indicate a shift towards Turkey.
Tehran summit, guarantors’ differences
The 16-clause final communiqué reaffirmed Syria’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and stressed the continuation of the counter-terrorism operation, the leading role of the Astana rounds, the condemnation of the US presence and seizure of oil revenues, as well as the rejection of attempts to create new realities on the ground, including illegal autonomy initiatives while standing up to separatist schemes.
The communiqué also condemned the Israeli airstrikes and reaffirmed the maintenance of calm in the de-escalation area in Idlib, in addition to the files of humanitarian aid, the exchange of detainees, and the return of refugees.
Although the communiqué included the clause “fighting terrorism” in its various forms, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, deplored the “increased presence and activities of terrorist groups and their affiliates in several areas of Syria.” However, the summit’s outputs did not resolve the dossier of a possible military operation, which Turkey threatens to carry out on SDF-held areas in northern and northeastern Syria.
The outcomes of the Tehran summit and statements made by Russian and Iranian officials during and after the summit confirmed Russia and Iran’s rejection of the Turkish military operation. This was underlined by Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who said that his country has differences of opinion with Russia and Iran regarding Syria.
“To this day, Turkey has not taken, nor will it ever take, anyone’s permission to carry out operations in Syria,” Çavuşoğlu added on 21 July.
Mekdad in Tehran
The holding of the tripartite summit in Tehran coincided with the arrival of the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, to “discuss the outcomes of the summit” with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
During a press conference that gathered Abdollahian and his Syrian counterpart following the conclusion of the summit, Mekdad justified his presence in Tehran at this time, saying, “My presence in Tehran was not unlikely. I also would like to express my satisfaction with Iran’s efforts in the final communiqué, which affirmed Syria’s territorial integrity and independence”.
Mekdad conveyed greetings from the president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and to the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi.
“We are ready to defend the sovereignty and security of our nation, and we will not fail,” he said, stressing, “We are against any Turkish interference in Syrian territory, and we oppose the establishment of settlements in Syria and the policy of Turkification.”
Lighter tone towards Turkey
In response to the Turkish threats, Mekdad’s statements during the press conference carried a lighter tone than the one used during previous statements in which he used offensive terminology such as “Turkish regime, Turkish aggression, and Turkish occupation.”
Mekdad said that “it would benefit neither Turkey nor anyone else if Turkey is to penetrate Syrian borders and establish safe zones because this will create another kind of conflict between the Syrian and the Turkish states.”
As stated by Mekdad, Turkey’s penetration of the Syrian border (although Turkish troops are deployed in dozens of locations in northwestern Syria) will affect the relationship of the “brotherly and friendly peoples of Turkey and Syria.”
Referring to relations between Turkey and Syria in the past, he said, “It is well known that we have had a long experience in this area, during which the Turkish economy has rebounded, while the Syrian economy has witnessed similar leaps.”
“The blatant interference in Syria’s internal affairs and the introduction of hundreds of thousands of terrorists into Syria put an end to these relations, which should have moved forward, and the purpose has always been political. This is what the US and Israel desire”, he stated.
Iran is appeasing Turkey
Speaking to Enab Baladi, the Syrian-Canadian academic who holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies from Canada, Faisal Abbas Mohammad said that Mekdad’s statements could not be interpreted outside the context of the Iranian position that is showing an increasing tendency to appease Turkey.
Mohammad pointed out that this Iranian position has been evident since last June, i.e., during a meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Abdollahian and his Turkish counterpart, Çavuşoğlu, when the former stated that Iran understands Turkey’s security concerns in northern Syria.
“Iran is not in the process of diplomatic or military escalation with Turkey. Thus, the position of the Syrian regime will not deviate from this framework except through exhibition statements and steps that will most likely not reach the point of clashing with Turkish forces”, Mohammad said.
Mohammad considered that “the (Tehran) summit neglected the Syrian issue in general. The Syrian regime must have received the message and realized that the Iranian pacifist path towards Turkey will not change, and this makes it imperative for the regime to avoid escalation with Turkey”.
Iranian mediation, where to?
On 2 July, Iranian Foreign Minister Abdollahian arrived in the Syrian capital, Damascus, at the head of an official delegation. During his visit, he met with the president of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Iranian media reported that Abdollahian, who then arrived in Damascus from Turkey, where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Çavuşoğlu, was seeking mediation between Turkey and the Syrian regime.
The Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Abdollahian as saying that part of his visit to Syria was aimed at “being able to take steps in the path of establishing peace and security in the region between Syria and Turkey, as they are two countries that have important relations with Iran.”
“Iran understands Turkey’s concern over certain security issues while strongly refuses to resort to military options,” he said, calling for “adopting diplomacy and dialogue to resolve the misunderstanding between Ankara and Damascus.”
The analyst, Faisal Abbas Mohammad, said that “the Iranian mediation between the Syrian regime and the Turkish government will not lead to results that would have a significant impact under the current circumstances.”
According to Mohammad, “Iran’s (Russian-backed) endeavors may at best persuade Erdogan that Turkey’s military campaign in northern Syria should be restricted and less comprehensive, and should be limited, for example, to specific areas such as Manbij and Tal Rifaat, rather than insisting on a major strategic change and the establishment of an area beyond the control of SDF, 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border”.
Upon his return from the Tehran summit, the Turkish president said that the dossier of the military operation would remain in place until Turkish national security concerns are dispelled.
He explained that the US should leave areas east of the Euphrates River in Syria because it is “feeding terrorist organizations.” “Once it withdrew, the counter-terrorism operation would become easier,” according to what the Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.
For months, Turkey has been threatening a military operation targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which it regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which would be in the context of defending its national security and establishing a 30-kilometer-deep “safe zone” within Syrian territory.
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