The latest political rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus does not seem to affect Iranian influence in the Syrian country led by Bashar al-Assad

Turkey and Syria: rapprochement in the face of Iran's lengthening shadow

PHOTO/MINISTERIO DEL INTERIOR DE TURQUÍA - Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar arrives in Moscow for governmental contacts with Syrian counterpart

The Islamic Republic in the face of the rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara. 

Turkey and Syria held their first government-level meeting since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, at the end of 2022. The Turkish and Syrian Defence Ministers, Hulusi Akar and Ali Mahmoud Abas respectively, met in Moscow with their Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, marking a milestone in bilateral Turkish-Syrian relations.  

The defence officials of the three nations discussed the refugee problem and the fight against terrorism in depth, all with the aim of stabilising Syria, which has been devastated by the civil war that has ravaged the country for 12 years and has pitted the government of Bashar al-Assad against the opposition, which the regime accuses of sponsoring Jihadist terrorist elements located in the last bastion of Idlib.  

In recent times, the Syrian opposition has been supported by mainly Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and draws on Sunni fighters from around the world. In contrast, the Syrian regime receives support from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the standard-bearer of the Shia branch of Islam, and from Shia armed groups, in addition to military support from Vladimir Putin's Russia, a major ally of al-Assad. A situation that generates instability and requires a difficult balancing act to avoid worsening the Syrian scenario.  

Turkey's interest in Syria 

At the end of 2019, Turkey occupied a strip in northern Syria, in the area bordering its own territory, on the pretext of pursuing Kurdish elements, whom it accuses of terrorist acts in the south of the Eurasian country, and, from the outset, it opposed the Syrian regime, which receives the express support of Russia, focused on stabilising the Al-Asad government, with the declared aim of putting an end to the last rebel stronghold of Idlib, which is said to harbour Jihadist terrorist elements.  

In recent months, Turkey has changed its intentions and shifted its attitude towards the option of resuming political contacts with the Syrian government in the face of its military campaign on the ground against the Kurds, whom it brands as terrorists. Kurdish groups belonging to the People's Protection Units (YPG) have maintained a military alliance with the Syrian regime since 2019 and have always distinguished themselves for their fight against radical extremists, who are also being pursued by the regime. Meanwhile, Damascus describes various armed opposition groups fighting against the Al-Assad government, some of which are supported by Ankara, as terrorists.  

Turkey took advantage of the US withdrawal from Syria to occupy the area. The departure decreed by the US government was harshly criticised because it meant abandoning to their fate the Kurdish-Syrians in the area, who were very important for the US giant in defeating the Daesh terrorist group in Al-Baghouz in 2018. It is precisely since 2018 that Turkey has been pursuing YPG members, accusing them of links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group by the Turkish government. 


In 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to convince Bashar al-Assad to give in to the opponents' democratic demands, but he refused and the situation ended in a diplomatic rift in 2012. Subsequently, the Eurasian country became a refuge for movements opposed to the Syrian regime, which organised themselves officially in exile under the protection of several nations.  

The YPG are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime, which has been waging a war since 2011 against the insurgents in the Idlib stronghold in north-western Syria, who are accused of being part of jihadist terrorist elements. For its part, the Al-Asad government receives the aforementioned support from Iran and Vladimir Putin's Russia, which has also carried out military actions and bombing raids on the Idlib stronghold.  

It is worth noting that the situation in north-western Syria is difficult to sustain in humanitarian terms. In fact, organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged the United Nations (UN) to renew the supply of aid to the area and, finally, the UN recently renewed for a further six months the cross-border mechanism that enables the delivery of humanitarian aid to the last rebel strongholds in this area of Syrian territory; an assistance on which the livelihoods of up to four million people depend. The UN decision was finally able to go ahead with the support of the fifteen members of the Security Council, including Russia. With the approval of this resolution, aid can continue to flow from Turkey into Syria's Idlib province and parts of neighbouring Aleppo without passing through the hands of the Damascus government, which does not control these territories. 

Iran and its role in Syria 

With regard to these moves to bring Turkey and Syria closer together, under Russia's watch, the absence of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the spotlight is striking.  

The regime of the Ayatollahs has been criticised by various experts in recent years for meddling in the internal affairs of other countries through the activity of related Shia groups or militias, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, Liwa Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is also developing a strong influence in Syria, a country governed by the Shiite tendency. 

The Ayatollahs' regime is outside these tripartite contacts, but it has interests and political influence over Damascus. An influence and presence that cannot be ignored when it comes to influencing the new diplomatic guidelines opened between Turkey and Syria. All this bearing in mind that power in Syria and Iran currently represents the Shia side of Islam and Turkey the Sunni side; two variants of the same religion that are divergent and have been at loggerheads for years.  


The recent Turkish-Syrian rapprochement, the meetings in Moscow and Tehran's absence in this scenario raise questions about Iran's vision of this rapprochement, its interests in restoring relations between the two sides and the extent of its presence in Syria.  

Various reports indicate that there is no Iranian satisfaction with the Turkey-Syria negotiations in the absence of Tehran, which has caused internal divisions within Iran itself between the hardliners of the Ayatollahs' regime and the reformists, as reported by Al-Arab.  

"Iran has always believed that the solution in Syria is political, and that Russia, Syria and Turkey are aware of Iran's decisive role in the fight against terrorism in Syria and its support for the people and government of Syria," according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The ministry spokesman indicated that these countries are aware of the importance of the Persian country at this time.  


Iranian affairs expert Hani Suleiman told Al-Arab that Iran views the development of Turkish-Syrian relations with suspicion, as Tehran believes that this could affect its influence inside Syria, especially since Iran's presence in Syria was based on the strategy of fear, war, confrontation and confrontation. Therefore, the presence of Turkish-Syrian channels of rapprochement would reduce the nature of the crisis that Iran favours in Syria, especially after the fighting receded and the battle was resolved to some extent in favour of the Damascus government, which dominates the overall situation, except in the territory of Idlib. A number of experts have long criticised Iran's destabilising role in the Middle East regional environment for its interference in the internal affairs of other states, and Syria is no exception.  

Although this rapprochement could affect Iran's influence, especially by distorting its power within Syria, in the end the impact of the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement on Iran's presence will be fragile, especially since Iran is one of the most important factors and major supporters of the Damascus government and therefore it is not easy to seriously compromise Iran's influence in Syria.  

On the other hand, analysts indicate that Iran will not prevent any overtures from the Damascus government, especially to Turkey, despite the fact that the Ottoman country supports the Syrian opposition. As Al-Arab reported, Tehran is showing great flexibility in this context, because it knows that its influence in Syria is important and not at risk.  


Turkey and Iran may have different projects for Syria, but the differences may now be smaller, although with a clear confrontation between Shia and Sunni theses that is not easy to overlook.  

Iran, Turkey and Russia are very important countries for maintaining stability in Syria because they can bring about a balance between the government and the opposition that paves the way for a final understanding. In fact, since 2017, Syrian opposition parties and the Syrian government have been in contact to try to reach agreements on various aspects. A rapprochement would be important now after the divergences that have existed in recent times, with cross accusations even, such as those launched in March 2022 by Iran accusing Turkey of assisting terrorists on Syrian territory.  

Meanwhile, the stability of Bashar al-Assad's regime has depended at various stages on Iranian support, which began during the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Tehran provided money and military supplies to Syrian government forces in order to confront the insurgents, with Moscow's participation. 


Another point to note is the good relations between Turkey and Russia in recent times, which was demonstrated by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government's mediation between Russia and Ukraine to reach various agreements on the war on Ukrainian territory, such as those concerning the restoration of trade in wheat. Similarly, Moscow has been able to act as a liaison between Ankara and Damascus to bring the two sides, which have different interests, closer together. 

A mediating role that is more difficult to assume on the part of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is seen from various points of view as a destabilising element in the Middle East.  

On the other hand, an important aspect for Russia and Iran was also the eradication of foreign presence in Syria that was not allowed by Bashar al-Assad's own government, as could be the case of the United States, which decided to leave the area militarily in 2019 by decision of Donald Trump's government. Now, the Turkish presence on Syrian territory may take a different turn if Turkish-Syrian reconciliation continues to develop, which could lead to the return of areas under Ottoman control to the Syrian authorities.


The new rapprochement between Turkey and Syria, with the approval of Russia and Iran, could be an important step towards stabilising Syria, which has been plagued by a bloody civil war that has caused many losses, in a scenario that demands a rapid solution so that the Middle Eastern country can rise from the ashes.