In late July, Tehran’s trilateral summit brought Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan together. The annual Tehran Summit serves as an offshoot of the Astana peace process, which aims at ending the Syrian conflict.
Moscow and Tehran – allies of the Assad regime – and Ankara, ally to rebel forces, initiated this peace process back in 2017. While the three presidents “reaffirmed the determination to continue their ongoing cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate terrorist individuals, groups, undertaking and entities,” a solid unified bloc of partners is unlikely to come to fruition. However, Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara will undoubtedly strengthen superficial and self-interested ties to counter the U.S.-led Arab coalition.
Turkey’s Interest in the Syrian conflict
Since 2011, a devastating full-scale civil war has plagued Syria. While growing economic insecurity in part catalyzed Syrian civilians to rise up against their government, President Bashar al-Assad’s political oppression heavily ignited the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept across the country. The Assad regime responded to protesters with deadly force, directing its security forces to use arms and ammunition to crush what they referred to as “foreign-backed terrorism.” The civil war has morphed into a widescale conflict, incorporating several foreign powers.
As described in an earlier 19FortyFive piece:
“Iran and Turkey have remained the Assad regime’s key supporters throughout the last decade, while the U.S., Turkey, Gulf states and other Western powers have backed the opposition to varying degrees. Today, Ankara controls much of Syria’s northwestern region, while Assad’s military holds control over the rest of the country with the help of Russia and Iran. Over the last few years, Israel and the U.S. have carried out airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian assets.”
In recent months, Erdogan has been ramping up his rhetoric outlining plans to launch offensives targeting the Turkish-Syrian shared border. In June, the Turkish president said that its military was moving forward in its plan to establish a “security zone” along its southern border.
Erdogan added that Turkish forces would continue their offensive “step by step into other regions,” according to Foreign Policy. During the trilateral meeting in late July, Erdogan demanded Moscow and Tehran support Turkey’s offensive objectives and was shut down by his counterparts. Syria is extremely unstable and launching a war would only contribute to the ongoing chaos.
Conflicts Bringing Iran and Russia Closer
While Tehran and Moscow may publicly denounce any war efforts because of humanitarian concerns, the countries possess ulterior motives. Both the Kremlin and the Iranian regime have invested immense amounts of monetary and military aid to keep the Assad family in power. Both countries are undergoing economic hardship in part due to international sanctions.
Following the onset of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, many Western countries have halted economic transactions with Moscow. Additionally, Tehran is under financial stress due to U.S. imposed sanctions made in conjunction with the regime’s failure to comply with nuclear guidelines.
In fact, Moscow and Tehran have turned to each other in recent months to augment their relationship and strategize how to evade U.S. sanctions. In July, the White House announced that Tehran was set to deliver armed drones to Russian forces. In addition to providing Russian forces with weaponry to continue its offensive in Ukraine, Iran could also train the soldiers on the drones’ capabilities.
One month prior, Moscow and Tehran signed a mutual trade agreement, establishing trade centers in both country’s capital cities. The partnership and cooperation between the two countries has only blossomed since the Biden administration has coalesced the growing Israel and Arab coalition.
While Moscow and Tehran share joint objectives in Syria, Ankara is the odd one out. Following the conclusion of the trilateral meeting, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said that while Erogdan “had many goals and policies that he wanted to impose in the meeting,” the objectives “Were not achieved thanks to the serious discussions and opinions put forward by Iranian and Russian friends.” Mekdad is referring to Ankara’s insistence that a joint offensive effort targeting “terrorists” in Damascus be prioritized. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei countered this notion, asserting that war in Syria would be detrimental for the region.
While Ankara supports rebel entities in Syria, it stands firmly against a semiautonomous Kurdish administration in Syria’s northeast. Although all three countries agreed to cease efforts to “create new realities on the group” by the end of the summit, Tehran and Moscow may not be buying Tehran’s appeasement.
According to Foreign Policy, “Iranian-backed militias and Syrian government troops are preparing for confrontation with Turkish forces or at least seeking to deter their advances. The Shiite-dominant settlements of Zahra and Nubl, both close to Tal Rifaat, have been sent reinforcements in recent weeks to fortify defenses and to prevent parts of nearby government-controlled Aleppo from becoming Turkey’s next target.”
Despite the appearance of a solid unified front, the Russian-Turkish-Iranian partnership is shaky at best. However, all three countries will work with each other to achieve sometimes separate, sometimes conjoined self-interested objectives.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.