The Iran-Turkey Standoff: Who Will Win the Battle for Syria?

Syrian supporters living in Lebanon wave Syrian and Iranian (L) flags in support of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut July 24, 2011. REUTERS/ Cynthia Karam (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST IMAGES OF THE DAY) - GM1E77P04AD01
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Since the Syrian Army liberated the Daraa and Quneitra provinces, the war in the country has entered a new phase. Multiple areas of Syria are yet to be liberated and are under the influence of external actors. This has raised the urgent question of who among the foreign states battling it out on Syrian soil will retain lasting influence in the fragmented country.

Jihadist-held Idlib is effectively controlled by Turkey. The Al-Tanf area is under US control, and some Kurdish populations remain under the strong influence of the US, which has troops operating in the area. As things stand now, without initiating negotiations with these countries, the Syrian Armed Forces will not be able to regain control over the whole country.

At the end of July, the Russian city of Sochi became the scene for negotiations between Iran, Turkey and Russia to discuss the Syrian issue. Damascus and Ankara have not officially entered into negotiations with one another, but have merely been issuing cross-declarations on the Turkish presence in Syria. The Syrian government promises Ankara that Idlib will again come under the control of Damascus, sooner or later.

“Turkey is not going to occupy Syrian territory indefinitely, because the benefits of this occupation are absolutely insufficient compared to the financial and political image it will lose, as well as the military casualties that could occur if the occupation is maintained. At some point Turkish troops will be forced to leave Syrian territory. However, Erdogan does not want to ‘shake hands’, but plans, in turn, to demand compliance with a number of conditions,” political analyst Gevorg Mirzayan explained in an article for the Russian magazine Expert.

In Mirzayan’s view, Turkey plans to maintain its influence in post-war Syria, and thus Ankara favors granting more rights and powers to local communities – a part of which, in northwestern and western Syria, are pro-Turkish .

On the other hand, Ankara does not want these rights and powers to be applied to Kurds in Syria,  because the Turkish government considers them to be one of the main threats to Turkey’s national security. However, meeting such conditions seems impossible, the political scientist warned.

“The constitutional commission of civil society in Syria [whose creation was agreed upon during the negotiations in Sochi and which is made up of representatives of both the Syrian government and the opposition] is just beginning to work, and no one knows how to exclude the Kurds from the decentralization process,” explained the analyst.

In addition, Iran is also unwilling to allow Turkey zones of influence in Syria.

“Everyone understands that, most likely in the medium term Tehran and Ankara will compete for dominance in the Middle East,” he added Mirzayan.

The Turkish authorities threaten, in turn, that if Moscow and Tehran give the green light to Damascus to carry out a military operation in Idlib without acknowledging Ankara, Turkey will abandon Astana peace talks and might reactivate military and political aid to the Syrian opposition.

According to Mirzayan, the meeting in Sochi gave the three countries the chance to reach a compromise. Damascus, Tehran and Moscow agreed to temporarily postpone the offensive in Idlib and allow Turkey itself to deal with threats from terrorist groups operating in this region, such as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Tahrir al-Sham, the new reincarnation of the Al-Nusra Front.

“However, this commitment will most likely not last long. Firstly, because Turkey cannot cope with the situation at the moment, as shown, for example, by the regular attacks of drones carried out from Idlib against military bases and the fact that Damascus is already negotiating with the Kurds, and this dialogue is based on the promise of decentralization,” the analyst wrote.

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Here we can see a paradox: the interests of Damascus coincide with those of Turkey in the idea of ​​not extending the autonomy of the Kurds, but for now the Syrian government is willing to grant them limited autonomy as part of the long process of negotiations and rebuilding Syria. 

“If the Turks oppose it, in the end Damascus has to choose between compromising with the Kurds or satisfying the Turks, it will opt for the Kurds,” the political scientist forecasted.

Mirzayan is convinced that Damascus will not choose Turkey because it is “the weakest link in the Syrian triumvirate” composed of Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. The end of the Syrian war is imminent and the positions of Iran and Russia in this scenario appear strong, while those of Turkey, on the other hand, are weakening.

The Americans, for their part, did not attend the meeting in Sochi despite being invited.

“We feel that our American colleagues have withdrawn from efforts to reach a long-term political solution in Syria. We remain convinced that only open dialogue can lead to a satisfactory resolution for all,” the Russian president’s special representative for Syria, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, has commented.

However, according to Mirzayan, it may be possible to reach this agreement in a not-so-open way, for example through a Putin-Trump negotiation.

In addition, the US president has already stated that he is ready to withdraw American troops from Al-Tanf, who are no longer so important after the liberation of Deir ez-Zor and Daraa by the Syrian Army.

Mr Trump is also prepared to withdraw his support for the Syrian Kurds, who in the US’ view do not serve to contain Iran and, at the same time, create problems in relations with Turkey, Mirzayan explicated. This contentious issue has spiked at the same time that experts are warning that US-Turkey relations are near breaking point. Indeed, relations between Washington and Ankara have in no small part been spoiled by precisely the Kurdish controversy.

“The only question is to know what the Americans want in return,” Mirzayan postulated.

Some media outlets share the idea that the United States, along with Israel, will demand the complete withdrawal of Iran from Syria, but everyone understands that this is unrealistic: the losers cannot force the victor to concede defeat, so it is most likely that the Iranians must ensure that there will be no troops and bases near the Golan Heights and that Russia will be the guarantor of Tehran’s compliance with this condition,” he said.

At the same time, there is concern among Western politicians and experts over Moscow’s ability to enforce Iran’s agreement, because one of Tehran’s goals is to gain a monopoly position of influence in Syria.

Moscow, despite good relations with Iran, shares these concerns in part, and this is why it is trying to do everything possible to solve the problem by involving the Turks through diplomacy, involving European partners in the process of returning Syrian refugees, and in the reconstruction of the country’s infrastructure.

“The more external actors there are in Syria, the less likely it is that the Iranian leadership – in reality inevitable – in this country will become dominant, something no one wants. There will also be more possibilities for the national reconciliation process to not only end the conflict, but also for the long-term peaceful coexistence of Syrian peoples and religious groups,” the Russian analyst concluded.

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