Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, today left Tehran for Moscow to hold talks over the latest developments in Syria and the broader region, the Iranian media reported. Ansari and his accompanying team met with Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to the Middle East and African countries, to discuss ways of strengthening cooperation between the two countries in Syria. The two sides reportedly also talked about Yemen and other regional crises. On Saturday, Ansari, who has been Tehran’s senior negotiator at the Russian-sponsored Astana talks and was recently appointed as a special advisor to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on political affairs, will participate in trilateral talks with Russian and Turkish negotiators to finalize preparations for the upcoming Syrian Congress of National Dialogue slated for January 29 and 30 in Sochi.
According to Russian media, while Syria topped the agenda of today’s meeting, the Iranian and Russian diplomats also discussed other pressing issues in the Middle East. "The situation in the Middle East is actively developing," Bogdanov noted, after meeting Ansari. "Different, sometimes contradictory, processes are going on there, so it is important to us to share our assessments, ideas and forecasts with our Iranian partners and friends."
Comment: The trilateral Syria talks between Iranian, Russian and Turkish representatives over the weekend in Sochi come at a critical time. According to media reports, Turkey has begun shelling of Kurdish forces in Afrin, in northwest Syria, in an apparent preparation for a ground offensive to expel the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the border region. Ankara considers YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought against the Turkish government for decades.
Damascus has warned Turkey against a military operation in Afrin and has threatened to shoot down Turkish fighter jets. In addition to Turkish diplomats, Turkish military and intelligence officials are also in Moscow right now, apparently trying to obtain a green light from Russia for the operation. The Russian military controls the airspace in Afrin and Turkey needs Moscow’s permission to launch a successful offensive in Afrin. Unconfirmed reports say Russian military personnel left Afrin today. If Turkey goes ahead with the Afrin ground offensive, tension between Ankara and Washington will most likely increase as the US military backs the Syrian Kurdish forces.
And while Turkey, Russia and Iran have been cooperating lately on Syria, the Afrin operation and latest advances by pro-Syrian regime forces in Idlib Province are also testing the viability of the three countries’ long-term cooperation in Syria.
Even prior to the Afrin operation, Turkey appeared to be at odds with Russia and Iran over the latest Syrian regime offensive in Idlib. Last week, the Turkish government summoned the Iranian and Russian ambassadors to protest “recurrent attacks” by the Syrian Army in Idlib Province against Syrian opposition forces backed by Ankara, the Iranian and Turkish media reported. The Turkish Foreign Ministry accused the Syrian Army of violating de-escalation agreement in Idlib by conducting air raids against Turkey-backed opposition groups under the pretext of targeting al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. Earlier today, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. He further warned that the offensive undermined the Russian-sponsored political process to de-escalate the conflict in Syria. "With the excuse of al-Nusra, the regime is targeting the moderate opposition. This damages the process of political resolution. The parties that will convene in Sochi should not do this," Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.
The Turkish foreign minister's comments came a day after Syrian regime forces captured several villages from Ankara-based rebels. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also reportedly warned Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Alexei Yerkhov, that these “violations” have to end prior to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress which is slated for January 29 in Russia.
Turkey, Russia and Iran are the three guarantor states of the so-called de-escalation agreements that were agreed upon at the Astana summits last year. Syrian opposition forces have repeatedly accused Damascus and its Russian and Iranian allies of violating the agreements and targeting their forces under the pretext of fighting terrorists in Idlib and other regions.
Daily Sabah, an outlet close to the Turkish government, cautioned that the Syrian pro-regime forces are nearing regions which are being monitored by Turkish forces. “How far the regime forces will advance and how the interaction between Turkish forces, backing the moderate opposition, will be, also remains as an unanswered question at the moment,” it added.