On Feb. 14, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss the latest developments in Syria and coordinate their activities in the war-torn country. The summit — the fourth of its kind within the framework of the Astana Peace Process — was supposed to focus on the future of Idlib and the east of the Euphrates as the two main regions still out of the control of the Syrian government, as well as the formation of the long-awaited Syrian Constitutional Committee. In the final statement issued after the summit, the three presidents reaffirmed the necessity of preserving Syria’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity and agreed to continue their cooperation on issues of common interest.
In his speech at the summit, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hailed Tehran’s cooperation with Moscow and Ankara as an effective measure in bringing security and stability to major parts of Syria. He also elaborated the Islamic Republic’s view toward the current developments in Syria, from the situation in Idlib to the fate of the Syrian Kurds and the post-war reconstruction process. However, it seems that for Tehran, the summit in Sochi was about something more than just updating the coordination between the three guarantor states of the cease-fire in Syria.
Over the past several months, there have been serious discussions about a possible new Turkish military operation in northern Syria and east of the Euphrates against the armed Kurdish groups. Ankara considers the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) to be a terrorist group, insisting that the military option should be used to eradicate the threat posed by the group against Turkey. While stating that Ankara’s concerns in this regard should be taken into account, Rouhani said that “the most sustainable way for removing these concerns is to cooperate with Syria’s legitimate government and the deployment of the Syrian forces along Syria’s international borders [with Turkey].” Touching upon the 1998 Adana Agreement between Ankara and Damascus, Rouhani further reiterated that the agreement was concluded via “the good offices” of Iran, and that Tehran is ready to once again act as a mediator between Turkey and Syria.
In an unprecedented position, the Iranian president also talked about the rights of the Syrian Kurds. According to Rouhani, the reestablishment of the Assad government’s control over the eastern and northern parts of the Euphrates region “should be realized while preserving the rights of all the people living in those regions, including the Kurdish people.” This position is especially important in light of recent contacts between Syrian Kurdish groups and Damascus to reach a compromise on the future of Kurdish-held areas. As such, Rouhani’s position was apparently aimed at reassuring the Kurds that the Islamic Republic, as a key ally of the Assad government, is trying to guarantee their rights in any future accord with Damascus.
In this vein, Iran appears to be trying to elevate and redefine its role in Syria and assume the role of an honest broker between the various sides. In other words, one of the main goals Tehran now pursues is to add more diplomatic elements to its influence in Syria, which now mostly consists of military and security aspects. In fact, the Iranian president’s reference to the Adana Agreement and Kurdish rights at the same time means that Iran also wants to prevent a clash between Ankara and the Kurds, i.e., indirectly mediating between these two sides as well. However, the main element of this whole set of mediations is to revive Assad’s rule over all parts of Syria.
The Syrian issue aside, another aspect of Iran’s approach toward the Sochi summit was to use the event as a counterbalance to Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic. On the same day as Rouhani and his Russian and Turkish counterparts were talking in Sochi, the Polish capital of Warsaw hosted a US-initiated conference titled Peace and Security in the Middle East. The conference, attended by a number of officials from the Middle East and Europe, was seen as an attempt by the United States to isolate Iran and garner support for the American policy of increasing pressures on Tehran.
While the Warsaw meeting received a cold welcome from Washington’s main European allies over their disagreements with the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue, Tehran wanted to promote the trilateral summit in Sochi as a real and effective contribution to peace and security in the region. In this vein, Iranian Ambassador to Russia Mehdi Sanaei tweeted that the Sochi summit “shows the importance of regional and Eastern cooperation in creating peace and stability,” adding that “external and American plans, like what’s going on in Warsaw, has so far resulted in nothing but instability and the spread of terrorism.”
Finally, Rouhani’s presence in Sochi was also aimed at finding new ways for Iran to continue international economic interactions despite US sanctions. In this vein, Iran wants to expand the scope of its ties with Russia and Turkey beyond Syria so that it could cover other aspects of cooperation — especially the economic aspect. It seems that Tehran’s view is shared by Moscow and Ankara, as the final statement of the Sochi summit calls for boosting “joint economic and commercial cooperation” between the three sides.
Indeed, in the bilateral talks between Rouhani and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of the summit, the Turkish side expressed readiness to join the recently introduced European special mechanism for financial interactions with Iran, called the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), and to develop a bilateral equivalent. Furthermore, at the end of the summit in Sochi, the three presidents held an unofficial meeting with Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Although no details were published on the exact agenda of that meeting, given the fact that Russia and Belarus are two founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union and Iran is in the process of joining the union, the discussions were most probably focused on regional trade and economic cooperation.
In sum, Iran sees the trilateral Astana format as a useful and functional framework not only for preserving its role in the political process regarding the Syrian conflict, but also to achieve new spaces for political and economic maneuvering despite Washington’s increasing pressures.
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