Russian sappers welcomed at the International Mine Action Centre of the Russian Armed Forces near the village of Nakhabino; on December 11, 2017 Russia's President Vladimir Putin ordered to initiate withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria
Optimists in the media have already dubbed the negotiations between Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Erdogan that took place on November 22, 2017 in Sochi a landmark event, calling it a “Breakthrough in the Syrian question thanks to the Moscow–Tehran–Ankara axis.” But is this really what happened at the Sochi summit? Let us not forget that the summit was preceded by meetings of the ministers of foreign affairs and the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces, as well as by a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad the day before?
Those who consider the talks to be an unquestionable achievement on the path towards the settlement of the Syrian issue should cool it off a bit. Reaching another milestone. Moscow’s attempts to consolidate forces before an all-out effort in Geneva. A demonstration of Moscow’s trustworthiness as a mediator in a complicated process involving parties with diverging interests. Winning points in talks with western partners and instilling a sense of certainty in their comrades-in-arms in Astana process. Are these not better descriptions of the summit, especially when seen through the eyes of other parties of the Astana “trio”?
Back to Geneva
The joint statement of Iran, Russia and Turkey appears to show that all three parties place great value on the Astana process, which, as the parties stressed at the November 22 meeting, had achieved what other mediators and Geneva process participants had failed to achieve. Specifically, Russia, with the support of its Middle Eastern allies, succeeded in bringing the requisite parties together at the negotiating table to at least demarcate de-escalation zones.
It is clearly in Moscow’s interests to preserve its chosen role of a neutral intermediary in the overall settlement process. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation has stated that the Astana process is not a substitute for the Geneva process. It is simply a preliminary stage in settling military conflicts and laying the groundwork for the subsequent political process. Moscow intends the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi to bring together representatives of the main ethnic groups and religious denominations. The Congress is called an intermediary stage between the Eurasian and European capital cities that have become centres of Syrian talks. Moscow is pleased to state that they have succeeded in bringing together various groups, whose participation is necessary to launch the process of agreeing first on a ceasefire, and then on Syria’s future. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation also reminds its western partners that it was the Astana process that allowed Geneva to be brought out from its state of suspended animation.
In the meantime, representatives of the Geneva process, including Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, noted they viewed the Sochi summit as a step towards political settlement within the Geneva process, not the Astana process. So, Russia has to manoeuvre artfully in the field of international diplomacy in order to achieve tangible results.
The Idea of a Trilateral Summit in Sochi
The summit of three heads of state – guarantors of de-escalation zones in Syria – was held in the spirit of such manoeuvring. On the one hand, Moscow had to convince its partners that their immediate interests in Syria would be honoured. On the other hand, it had to show a diplomatic face that was ready for the eighth round of the UN’s Geneva talks, which were to focus on organizing elections in Syria and drafting a new constitution. The Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which had been pushed back from November 18, was slated to be held before the new Geneva round, but now it looks like there is no time left for it at all.
The parties approached the summit with meticulous care, but without excessive publicity. Ministers of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and Mohammad Javad Zarif met in Antalya on November 19, where they discussed the possibility of an “inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue aimed at searching for and achieving compromises in the interests of a united and strong Syria” as envisaged by UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The event was also preceded by bilateral face-to-face meetings and phone conversations at different levels.
Hassan Rouhani praised the November 22 meeting, noting that “our joint efforts over the past 11 months have shown that, only with political coordination of cooperation and proper implementation of agreements, were we able to be successful in stopping terrorism and violence.” Vladimir Putin, in turn, stressed the important role of Iran and Turkey that made the creation of de-escalation zones and other results possible.
The Kurdish question became one of the most suspenseful issues at the talks, and many media outlets focused on it: How, and on what terms, will Moscow succeed in convincing Ankara to let the Kurds participate in the political settlement process? Tehran’s interest in the issue, unlike Ankara’s, does not focus on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Rather, it is interested in the possible federalization of Syria, which could give the Kurds their own autonomous region. Iran has its own Kurdish population; some of these Kurds have recently fought in Syria and Iraq, and there are, therefore, serious objections to it.
It appears, though, that the discussion about Turkey’s plans to carry out an operation against the People’s Protection Units in the vicinity of Kurdish Afrin and the All-Syria Congress that Russia plans to hold in Sochi are both elements of the greater plan devised by Moscow and its allies to sketch out their role in the post-war future of Syria. Compared to Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan, the Iranian establishment is maintaining a relative silence about the outcome of the negotiations. There are reasons for this, all of which are tied to Tehran’s concern about preserving its influence: Moscow has recognized the need to have Iran present at the talks to resolve military issues “on the ground.” But what is going to happen when full-fledged political settlement starts?
So while Ankara is concerned about including Kurds in the political settlement process, Tehran is haunted by the deeply rooted and not entirely groundless fear that Moscow may be ready to neglect the interests of its allies at an opportune moment, as it most likely considers them temporary allies for realizing its interests. Moscow’s interests lie in showing other parties to the political settlement that achieving results without Russia is impossible; that with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington unwilling to conduct constructive talks, Moscow is ready to engage the requisite parties, find common ground and, as a minimum, report on the results. However, if Russia views the Astana process as mostly exigent and complementary to the Geneva talks, aimed at resolving issues “on the ground,” its partners in the “trio” – Iran in particular – see it as the principal venue for realizing their interests. Therefore, Moscow’s statements on the importance of Geneva talks intended for observers outside the “trio” are perceived inside the “trio” with caution, as is the initiative to convene the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi, despite Iran’s assurances of consenting to it.
Iran’s Expectations of Syria’s Future
Emphasizing their significant role in propelling the process forward, the parties noted that the talks focused on the following key issues: the war on terrorism (which is nearly over) and consent to hold the Congress in Sochi. The sides also noted the spirit of “the axis of resistance.” Iranian analysts spoke about the possibility of shaping a new version of the axis that included Russia. In particular, it was stressed that Syria’s future should be decided by the Syrian people rather than by foreign forces.
It is rather difficult to formulate Tehran’s expectations of Syria’s future on the basis of statements made by officials or by the academic elite. This is partly due to the different tasks that are being simultaneously handled by politicians in Tehran and the military “on the ground” in Syria at various levels, and the equivalency of the internal actors involved. In part, it may be due to the lack of a clear vision and the presence of many external unknowns.
At the Sochi summit, President Rouhani joined his colleagues in talking about the fundamental principles of the political process, namely, Syria’s integrity and the preservation of its sovereignty and independence. “I am very happy that our three countries, while emphasising the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, independence and unity of Syria, have pledged to closely cooperate in order to create peace and stability in Syria,” the President of Iran said. There is another important thing that Tehran expects – something that has not been stated officially – and that is that the political settlement process will not bring a pro-Israel government in power. The new government should not necessarily be anti-western, but it should not be pro-western, either. Israel was also mentioned in another statement in the spirit of “the axis of resistance,” of which Iran sees itself as part and guide: Hassan Rouhani expressed satisfaction with the lack of success on the part of those who wanted to “encroach on their (Syria’s) national sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and independence,” mentioning, in particular, Americans, “Zionists” and other countries of the region.
In opposition to “peace-breakers,” Iran, according to President Rouhani, strives only to preserve stability and achieve fruitful cooperation in the region. Particular attention should be paid to this statement in the context of Tehran’s regional opponents attempting to alter the course of Syrian settlement and to carry out the re-securitization of Iran as a whole by accusing the leaders of the Islamic Republic of expansionist ambitions.
Iran’s expectations were most tellingly laid out in Hassan Rouhani’s speech on participation in the political process after the military issues have been resolved. “The recovery of Syria, as well as economic development in that country, requires the full support of the international community with an emphasis on rebuilding damaged and destroyed infrastructure, as well as creating production opportunities in that country, including the participation of the countries of the region. Our meeting today opens this new stage,” the President of Iran said. He clearly views the conclusion of this stage of cooperation as the start of a new phase involving the same participants – or in an expanded format – that in any case includes Tehran as a major player. In connection with its attempt to demonstrate its equal weight, Iran, despite its doubts concerning Moscow’s ambitions, also welcomed Russia’s intention to hold the Congress in Sochi.
Most likely, Russia has succeeded in explaining its constructive intentions for the Congress and for the Syrian settlement to its “trio” partners since, officially, Iran’s leadership was highly positive about the event. At the Asian Parliamentary Assembly held in Istanbul on November 21–24, Speaker of the Parliament of Iran Ali Larijani called the Sochi trilateral summit a “turning point” for the situation in the region, and he viewed the experience of successful cooperation between the three countries as groundwork for playing a joint and significant role in the Asian context as a whole. Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran Hassan Ghashghavi, who was also present at the Assembly, supported him saying to the Turkish Anadolu Agency that Tehran had positive expectations of the talks and that the meeting was a natural extension of the Astana process. Before departing for the talks, Zarif tweeted that the process was moving in the right direction. Advisor for International Affairs of the Parliament of Iran Hossein Amir-Abdollahian called the cooperation of the three countries a diplomatic success that had resulted in “breaking the bones of takfiri terrorism”.
The Iranian reformist newspaper Bahar, quoting its sources, suggested two principal goals of the trilateral meeting: to make a statement on the importance of the arrangements achieved; and, pursuant to the results of the Astana process, to develop a joint action plan to be submitted to the upcoming talks in Geneva. Despite the informed source, the news outlet once again is silent on the principal item of concern: what will Moscow be talking about with the other participants in the political settlement process, those with whom Iran does not maintain any official communication?
As always, Iran is biding its time: expressing moderate support for political settlement in general, and for the idea of the Congress that Russia has proposed, Tehran is still waiting for more specific decisions to be made – in particular, on including Iran in the final settlement process. Even the Arabic publication Al-Quds noted that silence, although it interprets it as Iran disagreeing with the arrangements achieved and at the same time not desiring to interrupt a process that, at least outwardly, appears coordinated.
Iran was already concerned with its absence from the talks on creating a de-escalation zone in the south of Syria held in July 2017 in Jordan. This concern was boosted manifold after King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s visit to Moscow in October 2017 and the agreements achieved there, including the prospective sale of S-400 missile systems to Riyadh. This was followed by a joint statement on Syria by Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, which had been agreed upon at the APEC summit in Da Nang. Immediately after the Sochi summit, Vladimir Putin informed Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump on the results of the talks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani. In addition, Israeli sources claim that on November 23, Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation Sergey Naryshkin visited Israel to “brief Israeli security officials following a meeting between the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran on reaching a political solution to the Syrian civil war.” It is such steps on the part of Moscow that perplex Tehran and prompt its concerns. Tehran still prefers to keep silent, but no longer harbours illusions about greater strategic affinity with Russia, as it may have seemed – particularly after the United States passed Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in August 2017, which was aimed primarily against Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Iran prefers to bide its time until the configuration of parties involved in Syria’s political settlement becomes clear. At the Riyadh II conference held in parallel with the Sochi summit on November 22–24, Tehran was again accused of destructive activities in the region, and the presence of Iran’s forces in Syria was protested. Prior to that, the Arab League Summit sounded the same agreed-upon notes from Arab states. In a November interview with The New York Times, published immediately after the trilateral meeting, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman spoke extremely harshly and improperly, accusing Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of harbouring expansionist ambitions in the region. Naturally, Iran wasted no time responding. President Rouhani called Saudi Arabia’s hostility “an attempt to cover up its regional failures and domestic troubles.” Riyadh did not stop there. At the first summit of Ministers of Defence of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, which includes 41 states (many of which, incidentally, treat the terrorist threat in the light of their own foreign and domestic situations) on November 26, Tehran again held one of the top places on Saudi Arabia’s agenda.
Given the current regional situation and the complex relations even within the Astana process “trio,” optimism about the future of the talks is still rather reserved. Tehran is biding its time, waiting to see what Moscow will do next, whether or not Russia is willing and able to convince others of the need for a truly comprehensive process that would involve all stakeholders. The wait, however, is becoming more and more stressful. The question remains: What place in Syria will the configuration of international forces assign to Iran? And what role will Moscow assign to Tehran in aligning its own priorities, and in accordance with the opportunities that are opening up?
© Russian International Affairs Council
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
Yulia Sveshnikova, a junior research associate at Higher School of Economics, is the advisor of the PIR Center
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