ANKARA: The withdrawal of tens of thousands of Russian troops from Syria to bolster its forces in Ukraine could mark a turning point in the Syrian conflict and lead to a race between Tehran and Ankara to fill the vacuum left by Moscow in the country, leading suggest analysts.
Russia, Iran and Turkey are the guarantor countries of the Astana talks on Syria which aim to negotiate a permanent peace agreement by bringing the belligerents closer together.
However, Russia has been the balancing force in this trio, preventing the uncontrolled entrenchment of Iran-backed militias.
But now-abandoned Russian bases have reportedly been transferred to Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah, while Tehran is expected to send more troops to Syria to fill the void left by Russian military personnel bound for Ukraine.
In early April, Luna Chebel, one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s top advisers, told the BBC that the help and expertise of Iranian forces was welcome, hinting at the possibility that Iran had a greater great influence in Syria.
Iran has reportedly created a new militia, similar to its elite forces, to take on tasks previously taken on by Russian troops. The new force, under the control of Hezbollah and the IRGC, is stockpiling drones, chemical weapons and ballistic missiles.
Ankara and Tehran support rival camps in the Syrian conflict, with Iran backing the Assad regime, while Turkey supports the Syrian opposition.
Russia‘s maritime supply of its forces in Syria has been complicated in recent months by Ankara’s decision, under the Montreux Convention, to restrict the use of the Turkish Strait by Russian warships based in the Black Sea. .
However, Mehmet Emin Cengiz, a researcher at Al-Sharq Strategic Research, believes Russia is unlikely to give up its presence in Syria.
“Russia has invested heavily in Syria over the years, and there has been a long-standing rivalry between Russia and Iran for influence in Syria. Even if Russia displaces some of its soldiers or pulls them out of Syria, it will not leave the field entirely to Iran,” he told Arab News.
Cengiz believes that with the Ukraine crisis allowing Iran to fill some of the voids left by Russia in Syria, the conflict is likely to increase the regime’s dependence on Iran.
“After the Ukrainian crisis, contacts between Syrian and Iranian officials have intensified. Recently, Bashar Assad paid a visit to Tehran. He could receive economic aid from Tehran in the face of a deep economic crisis in Syria,” Cengiz said.
According to Aron Lund, a member of the New York-based Century Foundation think tank, the war in Ukraine has shifted the balance between Turkey and Russia in favor of Turkey, which could have consequences for Syria.
“It could end up destabilizing a long-frozen situation, but it won’t necessarily lead to a new conflict,” he told Arab News.
“Even under pressure from Ukraine, Russia may be able to deter advances by Turkish-backed forces in Syria, and Turkey may still want Russia’s cooperation to protect its own interests,” he said. -he adds.
Lund thinks the two countries could exchange concessions and favors so as to avoid exchanging territories or going to war in Idlib.
“For example, Russia could agree to be more flexible on humanitarian issues, including an upcoming UN Security Council vote in July that Turkey really wants to push through. Or Russia could support Turkish cross-border operations against Kurdish forces, which it was previously hesitant to do,” he said.
Last week, Geir O. Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria, recently sent invitations to the Syrian regime and the opposition for the eighth round of talks which will start at the end of May.
Lund expects new agreements regarding the UN-brokered Syrian constitutional committee.
“But the resumption of fighting in Idlib remains a real risk, either due to a breakdown in the balance or as a means of testing the strength and resolve of the other side,” he said.
Noah Ringler, an expert from Georgetown University, believes that although Turkey and Iran have cooperated in the past against PKK-affiliated groups against a common threat, this time Iran may recognize the Party of Kurdish Democratic Union, a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers activists. party, as a different faction and be open to assuming Russia’s role in the negotiation and coordination between the Assad regime and the administrative authorities in northeast Syria.
“As Iran expands its role in Syria, Turkey will likely seek opportunities to confront Assad regime forces and their partners to expand territory or trade near Manbij or Tal Rifaat, or even near Ayn Issa, especially as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s previous operations have proven him popular and public support for the forced return of refugees to Syria has increased,” he told Arab News.
“Assad’s forces are still seeking to launch another phase of the Idlib operation, and Iran may consider supporting one in the future to destabilize NATO‘s southern flank, depending on negotiations. nuclear and other factors, but Iran is not ready to do that at this point,” Ringler said.
However, current disagreements between Turkey and Iran are not limited to Syria, with disputes over transboundary waters and dam construction further straining bilateral relations.
Turkey’s plans to dam the Tigris and Aras rivers have angered Tehran, which fears the plans will reduce water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates and pose a threat to the environment, as recent dust storms show this.
However, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Ankara was open to “rational and scientific cooperation” with Iran.
The illegal transit of Afghan refugees into Turkey from its border with Iran has also angered Ankara, which claims Tehran facilitated the uncontrolled crossing.
“Relations between Iran and Turkey have become increasingly tense on a number of issues: construction of dams; the warming of Ankara’s relations with Israel; tensions with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq; and now Russia’s transfer of resources from Syria to Ukraine will add further complications,” said Jason Brodsky, political director of United Against a Nuclear Iran.
A new report from the Pentagon claimed that Iran-backed militias were coordinating with the PKK to attack Turkish troops in northern Iraq.
“All of these developments have the potential to shift the balance in Syria given the overcrowded landscape there. In 2020, Iran’s advisory center in northern Syria warned Turkish forces that they could be targeted after retaliating following the death of 33 Turkish soldiers in a Syrian airstrike in Idlib,” Brodsky told Arab News.
While Russia has tried in the past to reduce tensions between Turkey and the Syrian government in the region, Brodsky believes that withdrawing troops from Moscow could strengthen the Assad regime as well as Iran in Idlib.
“That doesn’t mean Russia will be completely absent, but if it moves resources to deal with Ukraine, it has the potential to blur the dynamics of the battlefield in Idlib,” he added.