Twin summits shaping a new era – Tehran.

            Continuing with our topic from last week, this time we shall look at the Tehran Summit held in the Iranian capital on 19 July between the Iranian, Turkish and Russian leadership, with limited Syrian participation as well. While President Biden held earlier in July a very limited Middle Eastern trip despite huge criticism and achieved very little, on the other hand, President Putin also held a meeting with his key Middle Eastern partners. But with a strikingly different result.

            The difference between the two trips could not have been bigger, even though it was a crucial necessity for Biden and only a representative diplomatic maneuver for Putin. Meaning he could have afforded to come back empty-handed.

            The American Middle East tour has failed miserably. Before the trip, the Biden administration had high hopes. Namely that it could cement his alliance with Israel and thus neutralize Tel Aviv’s criticism for renewing the Iranian nuclear deal, also convince key Arab allies to increase their energy supplies, especially to Europe, and put the market at ease, and finally bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer. The latter was a particularly strong wish of the Israelis. Yet after the meeting even Israeli experts pointed out that Biden largely failed in his attempt. But probably the clearest sign of Biden’s trip is that only two weeks after it is over, it has already become a forgotten topic. Which shows the results. Moreover, after the Tehran Summit even hard-line American channels had to face the reality that while Biden failed, Putin got all he wanted – and even more – in Tehran.

            Indeed, the Tehran Summit, while it has attracted relatively little attention, in just one day settled a huge number of cases. Hammered out the framework of Turkish-Russian trade and transport cooperation about Ukraine, set in motion huge a new era of trade partnership between Moscow and Tehran, and most importantly, created new realities about Syria, which by now start to show on the Turkish foreign policy. At least in the changing tone.

            Interestingly, however, probably the biggest sign of the growing importance of cooperation between the states not favored by Washington shows with all the results surrounding the Tehran Summit. All indicate that the realities are changing fast.

            So, why was this summit, and what did it achieve?


The core topic, Syria

            The main official reason why the Tehran Summit was conveyed, or at least the most obvious pretext in light of all that actually happened was the growing tension around Syria once again, and how to prevent escalation, not to make the world even more complicated as it is with the war in Ukraine.

            It all goes back to a statement by Turkish President Erdoğan in late May when he said that Turkish forces may soon launch yet another military operation in Syria – altogether the third since the war erupted against the Syrian state – in order to push the Kurdish factions farther from the border, eliminate the threat they pose and create a “safe zone” safeguarded by the Turkish forces. That is a relatively old project by Ankara, which serves several goals. The so-called “safe zone” created by the Turkish Army and the “de-escalation zone” created by agreements between Moscow and Ankara, all serve Ankara’s interest to settle its militant allies outside of Turkey. These extreme elements once served as a key asset to bring about regime change in Syria, but once that track failed Ankara had to face the threat that these elements will soon settle with Turkey itself. So to prevent that they had been kept busy on the frontlines. They also serve to fight against the growing Kurdish separatist elements along Turkey’s borders, which ironically are the key assets of Washington to maintain its illegal presence in Syria and to continue appropriating Syria’s oil wealth. As result there is a constant fluid status by the biggest Kurdish militia, the American-sponsored Qasad, swinging back and forth between Washington and Damascus, but always at odds with Ankara. However, the “safe zones” also serve the goal of creating an area where the bulk of the Syrian refugees, which do not put a huge burden on the Turkish economy and social fabric, could be sent back and later on might serve as a bulwark of Turkish interests inside Syria.

            The problem is a careful balance here, as a new military operation might ignite yet another proxy war between Washington and Moscow after Ukraine, and the Kurds also have to choose between Damascus and Washington, when they face another Turkish invasion. Also, another military operation cannot be ignored by Damascus, thus having the potential of yet another confrontation between Syrian-Russian and Turkish troops, and their respective allies in the region. Because of this complicated setup stopping a new Turkish invasion is imperative. Not only for Damascus – for obvious reasons -, or Moscow with its very diverse and complex relations with Ankara, or Iran, as a key ally of Damascus which by now cannot ignore such complications, but also for the Americans. Because the new Turkish push would mean that either Washington sends in more troops to fend this operation off helping its Kurdish proxies and at a time when it rather wants to decrease its presence here or fails to do so and the Kurdish factions will inevitably turn towards Damascus and Moscow for help. And if that goes through the key facilitators of the American occupation and exploitation in Syria will be undermined.

            Seeing full well this complication the Americans somewhat increased their presence in their bases and started applying air defenses. But much more was needed. So in the first week of July American Senator Lindsey Graham took a trip to the Syrian al-Ḥasaka Province and to Turkey in a mediation attempt between Qasad and the Turkish leadership. Which he said was a success yet no settlement was reached. And in a result, the Turkish military operation was still likely to happen.

            And the first unwanted consequence for the Americans happened on 18 July. An agreement was reached between the Qasad leadership and the Syrian central government, by which Syrian Army troops entered the cities of ‘Ayn ‘Īsā and ‘Ayn al-‘Arab. By this, a substantial area spreading from Minbiğ to ‘Ayn al-‘Arab – also known as Kobane – all along the Turkish-occupied areas practically returned to Syrian state control. While it is true that Syrian troops were present in these areas even before that was a highly limited presence and by any means not under full control.

            Probably that is not a coincidence that this development came just one day before the Tehran Summit, which even before it started had Syria high on the agenda. Moscow and Tehran hand in hand made it clear that no major military operation can be allowed in Syria and that is a crucial matter. The question was, how to prevent it without humiliating Ankara? On the one hand, the Turkish leadership had to be convinced that such a scenario is unacceptable and will be confronted, but also this had to be wrapped in a convincing format. On the very first day of the Tehran Summit, on July 19 President Erdoğan only had a brief meeting with his Iranian counterpart Ra’īsī, before being forwarded to Iranian Supreme Leader ‘Alī Hāmeneī. Clearly signaling that the two states are interacting at the highest possible level. In that meeting, the Iranian leader clearly stated that a Turkish military operation cannot happen, as “any Turkish military operation in Syria will not only benefit the terrorists but will also harm Ankara”. This is a very diplomatic, but unmistakable signal that this time even Iran, which so far in the war refrained from openly confronting Turkish operations, will oppose Ankara. In other words, if there is a war and the Turkish troops and proxies will collide with Syrian and Russian forces, Iran will not be idle. Ankara was warned clearly to back off, and this time the gamble met harsh rejection from both Washington and its opponents.

            To wrap this “agreement”, or the lightly covered ultimatum Ankara which is to accept for the time being, but also showing how deep the Turkish leadership had to bow, the “Astana Process” was reintroduced and reinforced. Ankara also joined the statement of the Tehran Summit demanding American troops to leave Syria. There was a distinction in tone, however. While Moscow and Tehran talked about illegal American occupation against the Syrian state, which Iran said that had to and will be confronted, Ankara rather based its position on America’s “support for terrorists”. By which Erdoğan clearly meant the Qasad, but also undermining the key pretext of Washington’s presence in the country, claiming to fight against terrorism.

Source: Atlas News

            While the Astana Process is not necessarily a success story, though still performs better than the Geneva Process, it gave a necessary sugar coating. And while it was not admitted openly and even now Ankara claims to hold on to its plan, Turkey practically gave up the military operation. And it was a remarkable turning point, as recently Ankara deeply changed its tone towards Damascus. That of course does not mean a real rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara, nor that President Erdoğan would have given up his plans in Syria. But for the time being Ankara is much closer to Moscow – and even to Tehran – than Washington. Which after the recent failure of Biden in the region is even more reinforced.

            That is because in the same summit the framework for transporting grain and other key agricultural products from Ukraine to the global markets via Turkey was hammered out, and also the oil supplies through Turkey to the Balkans were reassured. Was Erdoğan lost in these matters his problems would have multiplied, while a military operation now promises almost no gains? And in the middle of these key settlements, even a little payback was allowed for Erdoğan.


It all started to unfold from here

            While the Tehran Summit was indeed in the format of a tripartite meeting between Turkey, Russia, and Iran, it was only lightly covered that the center of attention was the Russian-Iranian meeting. In that sense, the Turkish leadership was in essence “summoned” and confronted to give up further invading Syria, while a number of concessions were given to it. But the main point was how Russia and Iran reinforce, or might rearrange their relations. Especially right after Biden failed to settle his problems with other dominant Middle Eastern actors in Saudi Arabia. And in that context, the very statements about Syria had one key message that shows the ties between Moscow and Tehran have changed. Very deeply.

            When the two sides stated that no military attack can be allowed against Syria, we could understand this mainly as a message to Turkey. Which is probably right, but had a much broader meaning. Because it was also stated by the Russians that “Iran and Russia fight against terrorism in Syria in a joint fashion”. This notion might seem little, but in fact, mark a huge change in policy. Because so far Iran and Russia were practical rivals in Syria, both trying to gain favor and to some extent control over Damascus. Russia always based its claims on its defense pact with Damascus and its formal request for military aid, while paying little attention to any Iranian presence there. Iran on the other hand maintained that it only had military advisors – and sometimes indirectly admitted volunteers – in Syria, also behaving indifferently about the Russian troops there. Russia also gave an unofficial green light to Israel to carry out airstrikes as it pleases, as long as it hits Iranian positions only. This means that Moscow had no problem with the Israelis causing complications for its own Iranian competitors. And that seems to come to an end, as both sides officially – though very subtly – admitted their alliance on the ground. The message is both for the Americans and the Israelis. This means that Russia will step up against the Israelis’ raids and will not turn a blind eye to Israelis attacking Iranian targets in Syria, on the other hand, Russia will also give a helping hand to the irregular troops hitting American positions in Eastern Syria. And that indicates a move toward a formal operational alliance between Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow.

            There are many signs of that already taking shape. Right after the Tehran Summit and these statements Israel once again carried out aggression on 22 July against Damascus killing 3 Syrian soldiers. This clearly wanted to be a message that Tel Aviv is not deterred, but what is important is that a few days later Israeli Defense Minister Gantz admitted that some two months prior Russia has fired upon Israeli warplanes. Which was reported at that time, but only lightly. Also since the Tehran Summit attacks against the American positions in Syria increased by “unnamed groups”.

            What we see here is that while Tehran and Moscow are pulling way closer in a number of key regional and global economic subjects, the two partners are also testing their military cooperation for the future. And in this regard, Syria is a key subject once again, as they are not alone here. Recently China also started to invest heavily in Syria, while also joining statements to help Damascus and condemning the Israeli attacks.


Full of symbolism, but with an eye on business

            Of course, the main event of the Tehran Summit was the meeting between President Putin and Iranian Leader Hāmeneī, which was full of symbolic gestures. Marking the rapidly rearranging ties between the two. On the one hand, Putin for the first time openly and clearly condemned the American assassination against Iranian General Qāsem Soleymānī, while in exchange Hāmeneī showed a way bigger understanding of Russia’s military action in Ukraine than ever before. So far the Iranian government was refraining from clearly taking sides, though clearly showing support for Moscow. Now, However, Hāmaneī said that was it not for Russia to take action in Ukraine NATO would have attacked there soon enough. In other words, he marked that by now there would have been a war started in Ukraine no matter what, indirectly saying that Russia only took a preemptive strike.

            These are important signs of the warming friendship but only sweeten the much more important economic investments. Both sides agreed that the supremacy of the dollar has to be challenged and removed from bilateral – and even regional – trade. This at a time of a massive energy crisis in the world while Iran and Russia together have huge reserves is a threatening message to the Americans.

            The two sides also signed a $40 billion investment plan between Gazprom and the Iranian National Oil Company, by which the Russian side would develop gas production at key Iranian gas fields. What is significant about this is that amongst the fields which are mentioned there are some, which are jointly held by Iran and Qatar. Thus the partnership involves in one way, or another Qatar, the biggest natural gas supplier – and future liquified gas giant – Qatar as well. Probably not a coincidence that right recently the interaction between Doha and Tehran has intensified. On 30 June Qatari Emir Tamīm held a conversation with Iranian President Ra’īsī, while on 21 July – so right after the Tehran Summit – the foreign ministers of the two countries held a lengthy conversation. The latter in particular focused on Qatar’s support for the Iranian nuclear deal and removing the sanctions against Iran, but probably the key results of the Tehran Summit were also discussed. And considering that Europe still has high hopes for Qatar as a key natural gas supplier substituting Russia, it is not a secondary issue at all.

            Yet also important that within the same deal Russia and Iran gave massive discounts for each other’s purchases, while Iran offered to be a key transport conduit for trade between Russia and China. While Russia and China recently speeded up linking their trade and energy networks that are still far from their full potential. However, recently a trade corridor was opened via Iran. Meaning that while both Europe and Russia are rapidly trying to find alternative trade partners, especially in the field of energy to cut their ties, Russia with Iranian cooperation has become one step ahead.

            Allegedly there were negotiations of overall military and military industry cooperation too, but even if that indeed took place, the results are secondary to the economic benefits.


The striking comparison

            This is where we can reflect on the striking difference between Biden’s Middle East tour, which is becoming forgotten even by now, and the Tehran Summit, which still producing results.

            Biden not only failed to convince America’s key allies to increase their oil supplies to Europe. That is the smallest problem, as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Egypt are all signing separate deals to secure energy supplies to Europe, just not with American guidance. Much more striking is that he failed to rally their support. He could not give a boost to the “normalization process”, nor attract support for an “Arab NATO”, on which even the initiator Jordan had to backtrack.

            On the other hand, Putin got all he could in just one visit to Tehran. He bettered his position in Syria, checked Turkey’s intentions even bringing it closer, and more importantly laid the foundations for a new alliance with Russia, Iran, and China at its core.

            The most important difference is that while Biden wanted to shake up America’s main Middle Eastern camp and rally them to its cause all in vain, Putin managed to show that the idea of isolation Russia after the war in Ukraine has failed. It cannot only survive the pressure, but Moscow is even developing ties in crucial areas. And that sends a message about the whole Middle East.

            And just how important this change is, not caused, but channeled by these twin summits, will be our topic next week