TEHRAN, Iran — In public, it was all about economies, treaties and bilateral relations. Behind closed doors, however, the visit to Iran by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was all about Syria, Syria and Syria.
“There are still differences, that’s obvious, but they’re not as crucial as they were before,” a source in Tehran commented to Al-Monitor in discussing Erdogan's visit. “Almost two years ago, Erdogan came to Iran and insisted on meeting [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to tell him that Iran’s bet on Assad would not yield any benefit. Back then, the leader told the Turkish guest, review your policies, your strategies, and come back. [Bashar al-] Assad won’t fall.”
Erdogan is back, and he is still in favor of toppling Assad, but according to the source, he is almost convinced that this is only a wish.
“There are alternatives that have been discussed during the past months, and in this visit, they were finalized. Turkey has its own people in the opposition, and they’ve been isolated by the current backed by Saudi Arabia,” the source explained. “The need for change in Syria can be met by bringing together both the regime and the opposition. [These] talks can be more efficient than the ones taking place in Montreux. Even if it took place at the same location, the idea is giving the talks a strong push, with both regional powers playing a positive role in convincing their allies to come to terms.”
Both Turkey and Iran have decided that they need to maintain good strategic relations, as both feel the heat of terrorism and regional differences vis-a-vis other powers. The Iranian supreme leader’s words were as clear as day. He was reported as saying that Iranian-Turkish relations are the best in centuries, and both countries have to seize the opportunity to solidify their relations. Erdogan, for his part, offered that when he visits Iran, it feels like a second home. He added that they have to work together to the extent that ministers of both governments feel as if they are working in the same government.
Khamenei is known to be extremely selective in his choice of words. He is, after all, the supreme leader, the head of the regime, the man who makes decisions on strategic matters. In speaking about Syria, he is saying what his allies in Damascus might be too intimidated to say to the Turks, although, according to Al-Monitor's source, “it’s not the case” since they are aware of all the details and understand the need to have Turkey as an ally and a strategic partner.
The meetings are expected to continue between Ankara and Tehran to assess the situation on the ground. According to the source, coordination on the Syrian crisis is at the highest levels. “The countries are to unify their efforts. They see themselves in the same boat, and they have the same rivals. The region needs three main pillars to stand again. Turkey and Iran are two [of them]. An Arab partner is needed, and this is what they are working on. Iraq could play this role, but so can other countries in the region.”
Three weeks before Erdogan’s visit to Tehran, Al-Monitor learned that a high-ranking delegation from Iran had visited Ankara, carrying information about the situation in Syria. The delegation met high-ranking Turkish officials, including Erdogan, and there was agreement on exchanging information and coordinating closely on the situation in Syria. The meeting also included some non-Iranian and non-Turkish figures. The exchange apparently continues.