The series of meetings held this week in Iran among the presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia are of great importance for the region. They were held as part of the Astana Process regarding Syria, but this meeting took place during a unique time. Russia is at war with Ukraine, and Turkey is demanding a new invasion of Syria. Meanwhile, Iran wants the US to leave Syria, so they can use it to threaten Israel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit was watched closely by local media. Because Russia is in the midst of a war in Ukraine, it was not necessary for Putin to attend these meetings. The fact that he chose to go shows how much he values Iran as well as Turkey.
Putin appeared hurried in his meetings. He is on video pacing, waiting for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Whether Erdogan being late to the meeting was intentional is unclear, but it appears to be a signal that Turkey now holds more cards than Russia.
This shift in power is a big difference from several years ago. Back then it was Turkey that was buying the S-400 system from Russia when Ankara was increasingly isolated. But Moscow also needed Ankara in Syria to destabilize America's role there. Russia made a devil's bargain with Turkey, allowing it to invade Afrin in 2018, hoping to weaken the relationship between the Kurdish YPG and US forces. The YPG, a key part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, was running Afrin prior to 2018.
Meanwhile, Turkey comes to the meetings in Tehran not only demanding a new invasion of Syria, but also holding NATO hostage by threatening to freeze the ascension of Finland and Sweden. Russia knows this, and wants to continue to use Turkey against the defensive alliance – and that it may need to give Turkey something in exchange. Turkish media highlighted that the regime can still thwart Finland and Sweden's bids to join NATO. It also highlighted Iran calling the US a "destabilizing" factor in Syria.
It is worth understanding how Turkey's ruling party appears to coordinate with Iran on messaging about Syria. Tehran said that it is committed to a political and diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis at the seventh summit of the Astana Process. Iran President Ebrahim Raisi said the only solution to the crisis is "a political solution without foreign interference." The word "interference" refers to the US role.
Iran wants to emphasize the "need to maintain territorial integrity and cohesion [and] respect for the national sovereignty and independence of Syria, determining the fate of the country through Syrian-Syrian dialogues, and without foreign interference." The reference to "territorial integrity" is also now a talking point of Ankara's ruler. Turkey claims America's backing of the SDF threatens the "territorial integrity" of Syria, even though Turkey is the one that has illegally occupied Afrin and parts of Syria and backed extremist groups in those areas.
The statement from the countries noted that they also rejected "all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism, including illegitimate self-rule initiatives," and expressed the intention "to stand against separatist agendas." This is also a message against the US role in Syria.
Syrian foreign minister joins in
The Syrian foreign minister also came to Iran for the meetings, and Syria said it would cut ties with Ukraine, already having recognized two breakaway states in eastern Ukraine. Russia ironically backs "territorial integrity" for Syria while creating separatist regions in Ukraine, and Damascus backs those regions to show its support for Moscow.
Iran's Fars News suggested, along with Qatari media, that Putin was aiming to "change the rules" at these meetings in Iran. As such, Russia is reaching a new strategic level of relations with the Islamic Republic. This includes a multi-billion-dollar deal with Russia's Gazprom, and also potential drone acquisitions. Moscow has thus gained strategic ties and a way to potentially bypass sanctions.
For Iran, this was a major prestige visit. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei got to host the leaders of Russia and Turkey in individual meetings. Iran is presented as holding court in the region, just a week after US President Joe Biden was in Israel and Saudi Arabia.
An unintended consequence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine is that it has now set the world on a new course. Iranian media has begun to speak of a "new world order" in which US hegemony is weakened. Russia's TASS media also highlights the weakening of the West and the "multipolar" world that it believes we are now entering. That means Iranian and Russian media have the same narrative take on the meetings. This level of message discipline among Moscow, Tehran and Ankara is unusual. They may have shared some interests in the past, but today their interests appear to be coinciding to an unprecedented degree.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.