Just hours after Turkey called for a ceasefire at a Tehran summit, Russian warplanes resumed strikes on the Syrian province of Idlib, the largest area still under control of the anti-Syrian government opposition.
On Friday, September 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Tehran to discuss the future of Idlib. The three also met with the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
Prior to the meeting, the heads of states of Iran, Russia and Turkey — the so-called “guarantors of peace” in Syria — had met three times. However, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has never taken part in these meetings, and nor has any of his representatives. The general world public opinion and probably a significant portion of Syrians believe these meetings and the actions taken by Iran, Russia and Turkey amount to an interference in Syrian affairs, and that these states must be held accountable and answer questions about one of the most destructive conflicts in the world. The war that has resulted in the ruin of Syrian cities, towns and villages, and has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, as well as making millions homeless.
On September 3, ahead of the Tehran summit and the expected assault on Idlib, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Damascus for talks with al-Assad. He announced that "the remaining terrorists in the remaining parts of Idlib must be cleaned out and the region should be placed back under the control of the Syrian people." By using the term “must” Zarif probably meant to signal that military force will be used to evict the opposition from Idlib.
If President al-Assad succeeds in taking control of Idlib, it would mean the end to major military operations in Syria. The three countries of Iran, Russia and Turkey on one side, and the United States on the other, have military presence in Syria and they all want military operations to halt — but it means different things to each of them.
For Turkey, it means the return of three million refugees from that country to Syria. For Iran and Russia it would be a rather successful end to their military intervention. And the US hopes it will be a step toward ending al-Assad’s regime and the beginning of political reforms and a new constitution for Syria.
But agreement for the three countries on all the objectives was always going to be a challenge, and the Tehran summit failed to find an effective solution.
All three countries want Assad to control Idlib but while Iran and Russia support a military solution, Turkey finds this worrisome. Why?
1. Iran and Russia say that “terrorists” must leave Idlib, but Turkey insists that not all opponents of President al-Assad are terrorists.
2. Iran and Russia say they would support a military operation by al-Assad’s government to retake Idlib, meaning that both countries would also take part in the operation. But Turkey argues that in previous negotiations it had been agreed that Idlib would be an area designated for “reducing tensions” and that because “some of the [non-terrorist] opposition” to al-Assad had taken sanctuary in the city, it would be a ‘betrayal” if it came under military attack. Turkey says the attack would mean more Syrian refugees would flee to Turkey.
3. Iran and Syria claim that if the Syrian army does not retake Idlib through a military operation, the “terrorists” in Idlib might resort to chemical weapons and endanger civilians. In response, Turkey says it worries that al-Assad’s government will use chemical weapons, a charge that was also raised by the new US envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey.
4. Iran and Russia say that without the presence of representatives from both the al-Assad government and the opposition at the meeting in Tehran, the term “ceasefire” cannot be included in the final communique issued by the three presidents. But Erdogan insisted the term should be included. Otherwise, he said, the area would become a “bloodbath” and “any attack on Idlib would turn into a catastrophe.”
Persian Poetry Didn’t do the Trick
As part of his argument for a ceasefire in Idlib, President Erdogan sought help from a famous verse by 13th-century Persian poet Saadi that declares: “Human beings are members of a whole/In Creation they are of one essence and soul.” The verse also appears on the UN headquarters in New York. But this appeal did not work. Instead, President Rouhani suggested: “Idlib terrorists must be asked to lay down their arms”. He later said that all three presidents had “verbally” agreed with his suggestion.
Rouhani concluded his statements by saying that the Idlib issue “must be solved with minimum harm to civilians,” meaning that military action is imminent.
In the end, it was Russia and Iran that had the last word on Idlib at the Tehran summit, pushing Turkey’s request for a ceasefire aside. After two years of costly military intervention in Syria, Russia is seeking to ensure that Idlib, as the last major base of opposition to al-Assad’s regime, will return to the control of Damascus as soon as possible.
Iran has its own reasons to welcome Putin’s help in Syrian military operations. This would reduce the cost of Iran’s involvement in Syria but, at least equally important, Iran has had to deal with Israeli strikes on its own bases in the war-torn country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly asked Vladimir Putin to tell Iran that it will “not tolerate” Iranian forces and bases being in close proximity to its borders. Recently, Israel announced that in the last two years it has carried out more than 200 strikes on Iranian positions inside Syria — a record number of strikes.
During the Tehran summit, President Erdogan’s opposition to military operations in Idlib was in line with President Trump’s position; Trump has warned Iran and Syria against intervention. But even though two of the “peace guarantors” failed to resolve their differences with the third during the Tehran summit, all three still have something in common: unilateral US sanctions and tense relations with Donald Trump. This seems to be enough to keep them together as far as Syria is concerned, in spite of their unresolved differences.
More on Iran’s military intervention in Syria:
How Does Iran Justify its Role in Syria?, September 18, 2017
Afghan Shias trapped in the Syrian War, August 22, 2018
Iran’s Afghan Soldiers Die to Protect a Shrine, August 21, 2018
Iran Betrays its Stand Against Chemical Weapons, July 4, 2018
The Comedy Show Selling the War in Syria, April 9, 2018
Iran’s Multi-Purpose Proxy in Iraq and Syria, March 31, 2018
Iran’s Strategic Goals in Post-ISIS Syria, June 29, 2017
Over 2000 Iran-led Fighters Killed in Syria and Iraq, March 8, 2017
Army Reviews Media Strategy for Syrian Operations, April 26, 2016
Syria, Iran's "Strategic Province", July 16, 2014