On April 4, the presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Ankara to hold a trilateral summit within the framework of the Astana process to discuss the latest developments in Syria. It was the second round of high-level talks between the three heads of government after their first meeting in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi on Nov. 22, in which they agreed to continue their contacts in order to facilitate the process of finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.
The second summit came as the situation on the ground in Syria has undergone significant developments over the past four months. On the one hand, Ankara’s military operation in northern Syria against Kurdish groups has resulted in the taking over of Afrin by Turkey and its local partners, with the possibility that Turkey may extend the scope of its operation further to the west still on the horizon. On the other hand, the Syrian army, with the direct help of Russia and Iran’s tacit support, has managed to gain almost full control of the strategic Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta.
Having been identified as standing at the two opposite ends of the Syrian conflict, Russia and Iran on the one hand and Turkey on the other showed an unprecedented level of restraint toward each other’s latest military moves in the war-torn country. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made it clear that Ankara and Moscow “have no disagreements” over Turkey's Operation Olive Branch, some reports even suggested that Russia was actually helping Turkey to reach its goals in Afrin. For its part, while expressing concern over the situation in eastern Ghouta, Turkey stopped short of directly condemning the Russian-backed military moves in the area. Meanwhile, Iran apparently preferred to keep a low profile regarding both cases.
Taking into account the above-mentioned developments, one could reasonably argue that the three Astana partners have reached a meaningful level of mutual understanding of their main goals and interests in Syria. However, a deeper look at the recent trilateral summit in Ankara could provide us with a better understanding of the exact areas of agreement and disagreement between the three guarantors of the truces in Syria.
First, it seems that the three parties do not have a unified view of the exact role and status of the Astana process. While referring to the Astana format as “the only effective international initiative that has helped reduce violence across Syria,” the joint statement issued after the summit introduces the Geneva process as the ultimate format for finding “a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict.” This is in line with the repeated insistence by Ankara and Moscow that Astana and Geneva are not competing but rather complementary formats for a Syrian settlement.
Like before, however, Iranian officials present in Ankara didn’t make any reference to Geneva, insisting solely on the role of the three Astana partners in bringing stability to Syria. “The Astana peace process and the efforts of the three countries have resulted in the best successes in the war on terrorists,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said during his bilateral meeting with Erdogan on April 4. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also said upon his arrival in Ankara that the “Astana peace process has been the only successful initiative” for Syria, while criticizing “foreign governments” trying to make decisions for the Syrian people.
Mindful of the bottom line of the recent statements made by high-ranking Iranian officials, it seems that Iran is trying to introduce the Astana process as a successful example of regional cooperation without any Western presence or influence to solve regional problems and a template for regional political-security dialogue. In this vein, Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, who was in Russia on April 3 to attend the Moscow International Security Conference, said “foreign plans” to enhance security in the region “would inevitably fail,” underlining that any plan made for this purpose must originate within the region. In this vein, reports suggesting that Iran had rejected the idea of French President Emanuel Macron’s presence at the recent Ankara meeting makes more sense if being considered in this context.
Second, the three leaders’ emphasis in their joint statement that they would continue cooperation to combat terrorist groups in Syria clearly shows that none of them intend to cease their military presence in the country. However, Rouhani for the first time clearly defended the idea of “drawing up and amending a new constitution” for Syria, as well as speeding up the political process. This could mean that Iran — after eyeing the current situation on the ground and in particular the recent achievements of the Syrian army — is gradually shifting its focus toward defining a role for itself in the postwar political scene of Syria, trying to have a say in shaping the new political structure in the country.
Third, while attempting not to alienate Turkey by directly condemning Ankara’s military plans in Syria, Tehran appears to become increasingly concerned about Turkey’s plans in the north of the country. In what could be considered Iran’s most explicit criticism of Operation Olive Branch, Rouhani expressed concern that the situation in Afrin might lead to the violation of Syria’s territorial integrity, asking Ankara to hand over the city to the Syrian army. In fact, this issue seems to have the potential to appear as a hurdle in the way of further development of the trilateral format.
Finally, the five principles of the “sovereignty, independence, unity, territorial integrity and nonsectarian character” of Syria, underlined by the three parties in their joint statement, might be a sign of a compromise between Iran, Russia and Turkey over the nature and structure of the future Syrian government. If the latter is truly the case, it could be argued that Moscow is no longer pursuing the idea of federalism in Syria, while Tehran and Ankara, respectively, have agreed not to seek the establishment of Alawi-dominated or Sunni-dominated governments in the country.
In the event of the above, the most probable result would be a unitary political system based on the principle of power-sharing between various ethnic and religious groups, like the models currently operating in Lebanon or Iraq. Nonetheless, whether or not this is welcomed by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition is a different issue that only time will tell.