Iran sidelined as Russia, Turkey strengthen hold on Syria

While its pro-Assad stance overlaps with Russia’s position, Iran has been competing with Moscow for influence in the Syrian state apparatus.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Reuters)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - As Russia and Turkey cemented their roles as leading foreign players in the Syrian conflict, Iran watched from the sidelines, even though Tehran, Moscow and Ankara are partners in the so-called Astana process.

“The Iranians continue to be in a very delicate position,” Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said by telephone.

While its pro-Assad stance overlaps with Russia’s position, Iran has been competing with Moscow for influence in the Syrian state apparatus as well as for economic resources and contracts.

Tehran’s long-term political goals are also different from Moscow’s. “Russia sees a secular Syria that is somewhat decentralised and not necessarily territorially intact while Iran sees something closer to the Lebanese model,” Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria, wrote in an analysis for the Atlantic Council earlier this year.

Relations between Iran and Turkey in Syria are even more complicated because Turkey has supported rebel groups fighting Assad.

“The Iranians would rather have the Russians sit at a table with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan than the Americans,” Vatanka said.

The agreement reached between Russia and Turkey to deploy forces in north-eastern Syria was met with approval in Tehran.

Under the deal, Syrian and Russian forces will move into north-eastern Syria to remove Kurdish People’s Protection Units fighters, seen as terrorists by Turkey, from the border with Turkey.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani was not invited to the talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan, meaning that “the Islamic Republic was the odd man out,” commentator Bobby Ghosh wrote in an analysis for Bloomberg Opinion.

“That Putin and Erdogan didn’t require Rohani’s presence in Sochi, or even his endorsement, says much about Iran’s reduced leverage in the country where it has shed much blood and spent much treasure,” Ghosh added.

Vatanka said it was important for Iran that Turkey keeps its activities in Syria to the Kurdish areas.

However, Tehran must tread a fine line when it sends warnings to Ankara. Iran is interested in keeping good relations with Turkey at a time when Tehran is under political and economic strain because of a US policy of “maximum pressure” that involves efforts to cripple the Iranian economy with sanctions against any country that buys Iranian oil.

“Iran does not have that many good friends on the international stage,” Vatanka said.