Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are preparing to meet their Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, in Ankara on Monday. They will be discussing Syria and, according to Russian media, specifically the situation in the Idlib province.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and extremist groups in Idlib have been hard pressed in recent months by increasing bombardment from the Syrian regime. Turkey wants quiet in Idlib and no new refugee crises.
Iran, Turkey and Russia share one goal in Syria: Evict the Americans. They don't share much else. Currently, Russia is the key backer of the Syrian government in Damascus. It is the big backer, in terms of air power, air defense and international support.
Iran, Turkey and Russia share one goal in Syria: Evict the Americans.
Iran is a different kind of ally. It has sent advisers and support to Syria's regime, but in recent years, this has provoked Israeli airstrikes. In January, Israel's former chief of staff said it struck more than 1,000 Iranian targets in Syria. In the last weeks, an airstrike targeted an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps "killer drone" team near the Golan. Tensions are high.
One might characterize the current Russian-Iranian support for Syria as a north-south strategy. Russia supports Syria's war in the north against Idlib, while Iran seeks influence in the south. Turkey has an interest in working with Russia for quiet in Idlib. There is a trade off here because Turkey is buying Russia's S-400 air defense system. Turkey also wants to increase trade with Iran.
Russia, Turkey and Iran have worked closely since 2017 as they try to wind down the Syrian conflict. Frequent meetings between the three countries – that have their origins in the Astana process – were supposed to lead to a Syrian settlement.
Their goal has been to sidetrack the Americans, cutting the US out of talks that could have taken place in Geneva. Their goal is, in general, to remove the West from the Syrian equation. Turkey says it will focus on the Idlib crises in Ankara.
"Opinions will be exchanged," says Turkey's leader. And Turkey hints it is also involved in a fight against terrorist groups there. This is the problem for Turkey. There are Syrian rebels who are now dependent totally on Ankara in northern Syria. But there are extremist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, that are not. A US airstrike targeted al-Qaeda leaders in Idlib in late August. Al-Qaeda and HTS are linked.
Recent reports also indicate that extremist groups have continued human rights abuses in Afrin, a mostly Kurdish area that Turkey and Syrian rebel groups invaded in 2018, saying it was controlled by the Kurdistan Workers Party.
Turkey's goal is to preserve its satrapy in northern Syria. It wants to avoid a refugee crises caused by the Syrian regime or Russian airstrikes. But it wants Russia as a partner, and Iran. And it wants to see extremist groups neutralized without blowback. How to treat that chess-board is unclear. So it will sit down with the Russians and Iranians on September 16 in the historic Cankaya Mansion.
Russia says, on the eve of the meeting, that the war in Syria is effectively over. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying that the country is gradually returning to normal. "Some hotspots remain in the territories that are not controlled by the Syrian government."
These include areas in the east held by the Syrian Democratic Forces and an area in southern Syria around Tanf that is controlled by the US. Recently, the US and Turkey have worked on a "security mechanism" in northern Syria, but it is unclear if the US and Turkey can come to an agreement about the US role in eastern Syria. Surely that will be on the agenda in Ankara as well.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), the op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.