Iran FM holds Damascus meeting en route to Ankara

Iran and Turkey’s foreign ministers will meet in Ankara tomorrow following the Iranian diplomat’s visit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, raising speculation that he may be carrying messages from Damascus.

al-monitor Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shakes hands with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif during a news conference in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 30, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Amberin Zaman

Amberin Zaman

@amberinzaman

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irgc, mohammad javad zarif, mevlut cavusoglu, iranian influence, syrian civil war, bashar al-assad, iran-turkey relations, iranian foreign policy

Apr 16, 2019

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is due to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara tomorrow after meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported today.

Syria will undoubtedly top the agenda in Zarif’s meetings in Ankara, where the Iranian diplomat’s trajectory will likely excite speculation that he may be carrying messages from Damascus. Assad and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who together oversaw an unprecedented boom in bilateral ties, fell out with the outbreak of Syria’s civil conflict in 2011. The break was prompted by Turkey’s support for opposition rebels seeking Assad’s ouster that evaporated following Russia’s decisive intervention in favor of the regime.

But a thaw remains unlikely as long as the United States continues to dangle the hope of a safe zone in the northeastern stretch of Syria under Ankara's military protection. The Donald Trump administration’s Syria envoy, Jim Jeffrey, told an audience of Turkish-American business people yesterday that the proposed haven would be empty of the US coalition’s Syrian Kurdish partners, whom Turkey labels terrorists. The administration views Turkish support as key to curbing Iranian influence in Syria, one reason it is now reportedly leaning toward allowing a limited number of Turkish forces into the safe zone over Kurdish objections.

Russia, which is trying to woo Ankara to its side, has suggested that Turkey’s security concerns can be addressed via the 1998 Adana agreement between Ankara and Damascus. The accord, signed after Turkey threatened to go to war over Syria’s harboring of the now imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abduallah Ocalan, allows Turkey to pursue hostile forces inside Syrian territory. The difference is that the Russians do not want Turkish troops to expand their presence inside Syria any further, saying its own military police together with regime forces will assure border security instead.

Both Russia and Iran are keen for Turkey and Syria to kiss and make up. Prior to the conflict, Syria was Turkey’s commercial gateway to the Arab world. Iran is Turkey’s land bridge to the former Soviet states in central Asia.

For Tehran, Turkish goodwill remains critical as the Trump administration ratchets up sanctions against the Iranian regime. Erdogan announced in December that Turkey would establish its own trade mechanism with the Islam Republic, which is among Turkey’s top three suppliers of oil.

Last week Cavusoglu aired opposition to Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group. “We do not support Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in Syria, but no country can declare another country’s armed forces a terrorist organization,” Cavusoglu said. “We also do not support unilateral decisions [that] lead to instability in the region,” he added. 

Despite their differences over the Assad regime, Iran and Turkey’s interests intersect in Syria. Both countries have large and restive Kurdish minorities and feel threatened by the dizzying rise of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which control broad swaths of territory with US backing.

Iran and Turkey are alongside Russia sponsors of the Astana peace process, which has seen regime forces regain control over so-called de-escalation zones in places like northern Homs, Eastern Ghouta, Daraa and Quneitra. Efforts are currently focused on the northwestern province of Idlib, where the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has entrenched its control.

Turkish forces are enforcing a demilitarized zone established under the terms of an agreement reached with Russia in September. The deal is meant to allow Turkey time to negotiate with HTS, peeling away “moderates” and getting the rest to surrender their weapons. The alternative is a full-scale regime assault, which would put millions of civilian lives at risk.

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