On Friday, it was reported that Iran, Russia, and Turkey had finalized the framework of an agreement by which observers from each of the three nations will be positioned around Idlib Province in Syria, ostensibly to enforce de-escalation in the area that is still largely controlled by militant rebel groups. The details of this agreement have yet to be finalized, both with regard to Idlib itself and with regard to the three other deconfliction zones that will supposedly be set up by the three parties.
The Syrian Civil War is widely regarded as nearing its end, following the recovery of the Syrian military from near-defeat at the hands of a moderate and pro-democratic rebel coalition. This coalition fractured, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad gained the upper hand in the conflict, following rising levels of Iranian participation in the conflict and, after 2015, Russian air support. The joint Iranian-Russian efforts were opposed by other, less directly influential foreign players including Turkey, which opposed Assad’s continued rule.
Despite Tehran and Ankara having been at odds throughout the Syrian Civil War, Friday’s announcement is indicative of their willingness to cooperate in the war’s aftermath. Various analyses of this situation have appeared in global media recently, most of them noting that the Turks have written off the threat posed by the Assad regime and are now focusing their attention on the more immediate perceived threat of Kurdish separatists – a threat that Tehran and Ankara see themselves as sharing in kind.
Al Jazeera underscored this point in an article this week. But it also cast doubt upon the notion of broad-based Iranian-Turkish rapprochement. That is, it pointed out that while Iran and Turkey share some common concerns regarding regional security, they also have sharply divergent interests in other areas. Even with respect to the issue of Kurdish separatism, the two nations have opposing views about which specific groups need to be countered and which can be tolerated, according to Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, although Tehran and Ankara are ostensibly cooperating to diminish or at least reshape hostilities in Syria, they are evidently doing so for different reasons. Although Turkey has apparently accepted the defeat of Syrian rebel groups, it is not willing to accept those groups complete destruction. But this is precisely what the Islamic Republic of Iran has seemingly been aiming for as it continued to exert ever greater influence over the Assad regime. And as Al Jazeera further notes, Iran and Turkey have different preferences regarding which factions remain in power in Iraq, as well.
These and other differences raise serious questions about the durability of the de-escalation agreements, especially considering that they have not yet been worked out in detail. Additionally, the Iranians have been blamed for the failure of earlier ceasefire agreements, while the civil war was still in full swing. Attacks by Iran-backed Shiite militants in the wake of these agreements contributed to the perception that the Islamic Republic was more interested in the wholesale destruction of rebel groups than in a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Under current circumstances, however, it is possible that Iran and Turkey may find a way to work around their differing interests, especially if the Idlib agreement and subsequent arrangements allow them to in some way operate separately. According to a Reuters report on that agreement, many of its critics regard it as a de facto partitioning of the country. This is something that the signatories deny, but it is generally understood that Iran has been setting itself up for a permanent presence in Syria while also using the wars there and in Iraq to change population distributions along sectarian lines. It has also been reported that US policy in Syrian has been trending toward more direct confrontation of Iranian designs for the country.
This is important because it could point the way toward the US helping to broaden the wedge between Iran and Turkey, something that Al Jazeera suggests is eminently possible. This would likely depend upon the US first distancing itself from current strategies that are focused on supporting the largely Kurdish groups that remain arguably the only serious bulwark against Assad’s reclamation of the country as a whole.
It is well understood that Assad’s reemergence is contrary to Iranian interests – a fact that was underscored by the Syrian dictator’s recent, thankful letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, both bitter opponents of the United States. But the complicated relationship between Iran and Turkey indicates that there are different pathways by which American policymakers might aim to undermine Assad now that his national leadership has been secured at least over the short term.
While the US has apparently not yet taken major steps toward pursuing Turkish partnership, it has certainly set its sights on the notion of Iran’s potential divergence of interests with other existing allies, specifically Russia. Although Moscow was instrumental in Assad’s recovery, the Russian Federation was presumably motivated to a greater degree by the preservation of its own military bases in the region than by any sense of commitment to the Syrian dictator himself.
This was highlighted on numerous occasions throughout Russia’s period of participation in the Syrian Civil War, and it was used to suggest that Russia could be used to rein in its Iranian partners. Although nothing substantive has come of these suggestions, Newsweek reported on Friday that the US continued to pursue the possibility of turning Russia from and adversary to a collaborator in Syria and the surrounding region.
Turkey arguably presents an alternative to this strategy. But whichever partnerships the US commits to as its regional policy develops, it seems clear that the one unacceptable alternative is the embrace of an entrenched Iranian presence in the broader region. Indeed, Iran and the US are widely regarded as being in a period of ascendant tensions. And this situation is apparently contributing to tensions among other allies and adversaries of those two powers.
The Newsweek report, which detailed Assad’s letters to Khamenei and Kim, also called attention to the role that Saudi Arabia and its partners had played in calling attention to the apparent emergence of North Korean participation in the civil war, which Assad’s letter seemed to confirm. This in turn reiterated the fact that the Saudis and Iranians are competing for regional influence, both directly and through intelligence and media communications aimed at altering the landscape of regional and global partnerships.
Al Monitor addressed this situation on Tuesday and emphasized that although Saudi Arabia and Iran have both given the impression of willingness to resolve their tensions, their rapprochement remains a mirage. This perception was underscored the following day by Iran Front Page News when it reported that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi had rejected a statement at the end of the Arab League Statement which once again expressed Arab opposition to Iranian efforts to dominate the region. Those efforts are certainly on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and other conflict zones and, in a different sense, in Qatar, where Voice of America News reports that Iranian propaganda and cyberattacks have driven a wedge between the poor Arab nation and its larger partners, which have been demanding that Qatar sign onto the broad-based efforts to push back against the Islamic Republic’s regional ascendance.