In a telephone conversation earlier today, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the latest developments in the Syrian conflict. According to Iranian and Turkish media outlets, the two leaders agreed to continue to cooperate to tackle regional security and terrorism problems. “We believe that relations between Iran and Turkey should be elevated to a strategic level,” the readout of the conversation released by Rouhani’s office quoted the Iranian president as saying to his Turkish counterpart. Rouhani and Erdogan also discussed ways to bolster bilateral trade. Rouhani also urged Erdogan that the two countries should soon start to use national currencies instead of US dollar in their economic transactions. Erdogan also discussed Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone today.
The phone call came a day after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Tehran and discussed the Syrian war with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif. The Iranian foreign minister separately also talked to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov over the phone on Syria.
Furthermore, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia are expected to hold a trilateral meeting in Istanbul in the near future to discuss the Syrian conflict.
Comment: Tehran and Ankara have supported the opposing sides of the Syrian war, but the two Middle Eastern powers have recently taken steps to bridge some of their differences and strengthen bilateral ties. The two countries are also working closely with Russia to shape the trajectory of the war in Syria. Iran, Turkey and Russia are the three guarantor states of the so-called de-escalation zones in Syria – although violence in some de-escalation areas such as in Idlib continues unabated.
Despite a thaw in relations between Tehran and Ankara, a deep level of mutual distrust and divergent regional interests continue to prevent the two countries to become strategic partners. Ankara and Tehran will continue to compete for power and influence in Syria and Iraq as the weakening of the ISIS has created a power vacuum in the region. Turkey is also positioning itself as the protector of the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq as well as the broader region, while Iran is expanding its arc of influence through the region's Shiite communities.
The latest Turkish military offensive in northern Syria has worried Iran. Iranian leaders have called on Ankara to end the operation in the short term. Tehran does not want Turkey to expand its presence and influence from the northwestern city of Afrin eastward toward the Iraqi border. In the telephone call, Rouhani pledged to Erdogan that Iran will address Turkey’s concerns in northern Syria. Tehran is also suspicious about Turkey’s presence and support for Syrian rebels in Idlib.
Likewise, Ankara does not trust Tehran. A senior advisor to Erdogan last week said that Iran is a state that shows support for Turkey and then tries to stab it in the back. Ilnur Cevik, who is also a columnist with pro-government Daily Sabah, added that although Tehran has not publicly opposed Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in the Syrian northern town of Afrin, it is trying to sabotage the Turkish offensive secretly and undermines Ankara’s efforts to facilitate peace in the war-torn Arab country. "Turkey establishes security and peace in the areas it enters in Syria and helps to rebuild them, while Iran and the Assad regime bring destruction and devastation," he claimed. Cevik also accused Iran of aiding the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).