Turkish presidential sources announced on Thursday that Ankara, Moscow and Tehran will meet in Istanbul. Although the meeting date is not fixed yet, it is expected to be held soon this month.
Last time the three leaders met was in November at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
On a parallel track, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu conducted high-level meetings on Wednesday in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Russia, Iran and Turkey differ on their perspectives on the Syrian conflict. Turkey has backed the rebels seeking Assad’s removal while the Assad regime, which Turkey has always opposed, has been Iran’s chief ally since the start of the Syrian civil war.
Iran is also outraged at the increasing presence of Turkey in Syria and is concerned that Turkish forces intend to stay for a long term, especially following Turkey’s cross-border offensive into the northwestern enclave of Afrin against Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG).
“We wish for Turkey’s operation in Syria to end at the earliest time,” Rouhani told reporters Tuesday.
A Turkish soldier was killed on Monday in a mortar-and-rocket attack by Iran-backed militias in the opposition-held Idlib, where Turkey was establishing an observation post.
This critical get-together in Istanbul will focus on Syria, but its real aim will be a broader effort by the three countries to underline their red lines in the region while keeping alive their fragile cooperation in what has been dubbed the “Astana process.”
A central question now is how the countries will be able to resolve their seemingly irreconcilable differences over policies in Syria.
The answer, say analysts, may lie in their ability to work on a common denominator: Preserving the territorial integrity of Syria.
But they also emphasize the importance of such efforts to play down tensions in Syria through greater diplomatic consultations.
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at Istanbul-based think-tank Bilgesam, said this trilateral meeting is significant as it will be held between the heads of state of the three countries — not at the foreign ministerial level, as it was the case in the previous meetings.
“The more Turkey gains control and strength over Syrian territories, the more Iran considers it as a rival. Tehran doesn’t want to take so much responsibility, and therefore conducts proxy wars not only in Syria but also in Iraq and Yemen through its militia and Hezbollah,” Semin told Arab News.
But Semin is skeptical about the outcome of the meeting as he thinks that Iran has often deviated from Russia and Turkey on its Syria strategy as it prioritizes military means over political solutions.
“The only common denominator of these three countries is their commitment to preserve Syrian territorial integrity. But when it comes to Tehran, the words on the negotiation table of the trilateral meetings don’t match its deeds,” he said.
According to Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, these summit meetings are not only important to tackle the practical military issues but also to send signals to the West about the emergence of a Russia-Turkey-Iran axis in Syria.
“Russia is aware that the future of its influence in Syria very much depends on its ability to maintain its close dialogue with Turkey and Iran. This objective becomes even more important considering that currently Moscow, Ankara and Tehran all have significant disagreements with Washington,” Ersen told Arab News.
One thing is clear: The three countries depend on each other to reach their own goals in Syria and to resolve any unforeseen crisis, such as the recent downing of a Russian fighter jet in Syria’s northwestern Idlib’s skies by rebels. Russia, with the help of Turkey, has repatriated the pilot’s dead body and the debris of the plane.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in a phone call on Wednesday to accelerate the establishment of observation points in Syria’s Idlib region as part of the commitments of the Astana deal brokered last year between the three guarantor countries.
The Turkish military recently completed construction of the sixth observation point in the Idlib region according to the Astana deal reached with Tehran and Moscow to establish, monitor and sustain the current cease-fire between pro-Assad forces and opposition fighters in the region.
Last month, in an interview with the state-run Anadolu agency, Cavusoglu urged Russia and Iran to fulfill their responsibilities under the Astana deal, and said that the advances of the Syrian army and allied forces into Idlib have been possible only with the support of Moscow and Tehran.
“Moscow and Tehran are uneasy about Turkey’s ongoing military operation in Afrin, however they are not in a position to alienate Ankara due to its key role in Idlib. Similarly, Turkey requires the support of Moscow and Tehran to reach the strategic objectives of Operation Olive Branch,” Ersen said.
“The dialogue between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran is important to achieve the key objectives of the Astana process as well as the Sochi congress, which was organized a few weeks ago. For Russia, both platforms are still very important instruments for maintaining its role as the main power broker in Syria. Therefore it will do its best to keep Turkey and Iran by its side,” he said.