Has Iran come to the fore in the Damascus-Ankara-Moscow triangle?

Syria is at the center of Iran’s regional strategy as the ‘axis of resistance’. Since 2011, he did not leave Damascus alone in the proxy war against this country in order not to break the Syrian ring in the axis extending to Lebanon and Palestine. Organized by the Revolutionary Guards, he gathered militias from Lebanon, Hezbollah, as well as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and drove them into the field. Together with Russia, he turned the Assad administration from the rope. In addition, with the credit line it opened for oil shipments and other vehicles, it became a breathing tube to Damascus economically. According to the calculations of the Westerners, Iran spent 20 billion dollars in 10 years.
And this has several natural counterparts:
– Damascus remains on the ‘resistance axis’.
– Syria’s role as a base for Iran’s operations in the Middle East.
– And the guarantee of certain economic returns.
It was said that the agreements signed by the former Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis in Tehran in 2017 resembled a diet. But the concessions were not reciprocated. The Iranians had their eyes on phosphate resources. This award went to the Russians. On the other hand, using the ports of Latakia and Tartus could have been the biggest concession for Iran. While Israel showed that it would not allow it by hitting the Iran-linked section in Latakia port, the ball went to Russia’s feet in the maneuvering area. The landlordship in the ports was completely left to the Russians. Moscow had already undertaken the mission of keeping the Shiite militias away from Syria’s southern borders in order to secure Israel and Jordan. This mission was also the main reason for the adoption of Russia’s role in Syria on the American side. It was not in vain that Benjamin Netanyahu took the second place after President Tayyip Erdogan among the leaders who had the most meetings with Russian leader Vladimir Putin at that time. Although the news that Shiite militias settled in Russian bases during the period when Russia gave its energy to Ukraine did not go beyond foam, Iran’s path in Syria was cleared a little more. The unfulfilled concessions book was put on the table again. However, as the demonstrations that broke out in Iran since September consumed Tehran’s energy inside, the Syrian file was left behind. Delays in fuel transfer from Iran to Syria dragged the economy into a pit.


Now, while Russia moves the stones by putting Ankara in the normalization process with Damascus, Iran is looking to see if the carpet under its feet is slipping.
The absence of one of the Astana partners in the tripartite format, which started with the defense ministers of Turkey, Russia and Syria, made Iran very angry. Moreover, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) wants to sit at the table from which Iran is excluded. Putin called the Chief yesterday and emphasized the importance of close coordination in the Astana process. In a way, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I have Erdogan’.
The Turkish-Iranian rivalry is sharper than the Russian-Turkish or Russian-Iranian rivalry. There may be anti-Iranian points in the Ankara-Damascus rapprochement. In order not to offend the Iranians too much, Putin and Erdogan limit the process to Damascus-Ankara normalization. It may simply be about calculating not only narrowing competition but also preventing sabotage. Considering the actors such as the USA that could obstruct the process, a table without Iran can be explained to third parties more easily than a table with Iran. Conflict of interest is certainly an important factor. The red light shining on Erdogan’s military move in Tel Rifat came from Iran. Ankara finds the growing control of Shiite militias as dangerous as the Gulf states. In addition, on the Iraqi side, the Iranian-linked Hashd al-Shaabi militia posed threateningly in the possible ground operation against Shengal, which Ankara targeted as “The Second Kandil”. Ankara read this as “support for PKK”. Again, Turkey is also uncomfortable with the shift of Iraqi Shiite Turkmens to Iran in parallel with the relapse of ISIS. To put it simply, Anadolu Agency’s favoring of ISIS, while defining the Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria as a “terrorist organization”, reflects this anger.
Another point of tension in Ankara-Tehran relations is the developments beyond the Caucasus. The prediction that a possible peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan would harm Iran’s interests in the Caucasus brought Tehran to a very threatening line against Baku. Tehran saw the ‘Zangezur Corridor’ as a project that would cut Iran’s transportation lines with the Caucasus and took its guard in advance.
Problems feed each other, files overlap: Iran, Syria, Karabakh…
President of the Iranian Parliament Bakır Kalibaf met with the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey Mustafa Şentop and the Speaker of the Azerbaijani Parliament Sahiba Gafarova on the occasion of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly in Antalya on January 9th. During the trilateral meeting, he called for increased cooperation, accompanied by the warning that “We will not tolerate any geopolitical changes at the regional borders.” Stating that they cleared the misunderstandings on the way back, he said that tripartite talks at the level of foreign ministers, defense ministers and leaders were agreed on the North-South and East-West transit routes.
Of course, such a meeting is not enough to remove the insecurity caused by the military exercises held along the Aras river to preserve the geopolitical status quo. With Putin’s temptation, the desire to transform Turkey into an ‘energy network’ also intervened. The corridor that excites Erdogan gives Iran the fear of losing.


Normally, Iran’s goal is for Turkey to change its Syria policy and make peace with Damascus. However, determining the content of this peace as “a Turkish role that will replace Iran or regress Iranian influence” affects the view of the issue. If NATO allies, Arab countries and Israel are to tacitly adopt the normalization of Turkey with Damascus, they will look for a “new anti-Iranian entry” in the new equation. Tehran is aware of this. That’s why he took the trouble to raise his head from the fire inside and do some diploma.
Preparations continue for President İbrahim Reisi’s visit to Damascus and Ankara, which has been on the agenda for a while. Although we do not know its content, the traffic on the Damascus-Tehran line has increased. After Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad discussed the situation on the phone with his Iranian counterpart Emir Abdullahiyan on 8 January, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Eymen Sosan was in Tehran the next day. Bilateral relations, regional security and other developments were discussed. Abdullahiyan emphasized the importance of coordination and consultation between the two countries in different files. He asked for increased cooperation in the economic chapter. Mikdad also assured that Iran’s role will be inevitable in all attempts towards a political solution in Syria. Although the date is unknown, the Chief is expected to arrive in Damascus and Ankara without further delay.
For Damascus, Iran’s support in wartime cannot be forgotten and a break with Tehran is not an option. But as we move to the second phase that leaves the war behind, greater coordination of the agenda with Tehran and absolute cohesion may block the normalization process. Those who cannot destroy the Syrian state, using the Iranian connection as an excuse, condemn this country to remain in the rubble. If Damascus, which balanced Russia with Iran and Iran with Russia during the war, enters into a normalization process with Ankara, the balance can be established elsewhere. However, if visas are sought from Western allies for this normalization, bets can be made on a “Turkish role that limits Iran”. Therefore, it is preferable for Iran to open the Damascus-Ankara spring on the Astana platform.


Undoubtedly, everything cannot be reduced to the Turkey-Iran rivalry. The new dynamics of the region imposes a reduction in tensions. Hostilities between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council were shelved. Then Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE returned to normal. Cairo-Ankara relations are on a test drive. Iran sees that if it stays out of this climate, all tensions will concentrate on it. He fears the resurgence of the idea of ​​a Sunni coalition against Iran and its proxies, as it was at the beginning of the Yemeni war. It also feels the need to develop moves against the Abraham Agreements of the American-Israeli duo and their attempts to encircle Iran. The effect of intimidation is to a certain extent. That’s why the Gulf’s leading power is trying to make a fresh start with Saudi Arabia, align the UAE, and improve relations with Egypt. Of course, he is waiting anxiously here, as he cannot respond in kind to Turkey’s opening a new page with Israel. He sees the relations between Azerbaijan-Israel, Kurdistan-Israel or Turkey-Israel as hostility towards him. The “Baghdad Cooperation and Partnership Conference”, which brings together Iraq’s neighbors, offers an opportunity for Iran to normalize with its neighbors. The second conference, held in Amman last month, was attended by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Oman, as well as France and the EU from outside the region.
Iran is trying to assess the atmosphere as US influence over its Arab allies falters. On the other hand, the USA is pushing against Iran to make the Negev Forum more comprehensive with the countries that are party to the Abraham Agreement. The last meeting of the forum was held in Abu Dhabi on 9 January with the participation of 20 officials from Israel. Netanyahu’s return to power with a radical right-wing cabinet may put pressure on those who try the path of dialogue with Iran. Still, those who see Iran as a threat cannot ignore the erosion of American security and look at the possible benefits of diplomatic engagement in Tehran.
Turkey is also heading towards the old order where competition and cooperation nudge each other. Steps towards Damascus-Ankara peace will also add something to relations with Tehran; A little competition, a little cooperation. There will be a balance somewhere.