Moscow Declaration and its Impacts on Syrian Conflict and Turkish-Russian Relations

Monitoring and Analysis Unit
09 Jan 2017

In a total Arabic absence , Russian-Turkish talks, with an Iranian presence, were held on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 in Moscow, brought together the foreign and defense ministers. Talks took place after the control of the Syrian regime forces over


In a total Arabic absence , Russian-Turkish talks, with an Iranian presence, were held on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 in Moscow, brought together the foreign and defense ministers. Talks took place after the control of the Syrian regime forces over the city of Aleppo, backed by a heavy Russian air cover and supported by militias that are loyal to Iran. Russia threw its weight and used all military means to take control of Syria's largest city in terms of population. This has caused a humanitarian catastrophe that has raised peoples of the world as well as the displacements of its inhabitants. Moscow, consequently, received a wide popular and international criticism. And its interests have become in jeopardy, where  three Russian officials were killed in one week. They are its ambassador to Ankara, its Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and its representative in (NATO).

For its part, Turkey felt threatened and embarrassed at the same time, and tried to convince the Russians that the trapped civilians and combatants may leave the city. Immediately, Moscow approved the Turkish offer in order to avoid any pressure or additional humanitarian criticism. Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw it as an opportunity through which he can turn from being  a war criminal into a peacemaker, and from a fighting party into a political mediator. Russia pledged to exert pressure on the Syrian regime and Iran to implement the cease-fire, and the none-targeting of buses of evacuating people.

However, Iran views the Turkish-Russian understanding as a marginalization of its role, and a threat to its influence in Syria, since it was absent from the deal that brought Russia and Turkey together on the evacuation of Aleppo people from the city. Also, it was absent from what was known as (Ankara Agreement) on the cease-fire in Syria. Moscow is now speaking for the Syrian regime and its allies, while Turkey is representing the opposition party in the bipartite talks between the two countries. Statements by the Iranian officials show their apprehension of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, and that Iran would have preferred the use of Russia's political and military cover to curtail the Turkish role in Syria.

In light of the exchange of altercations between Ankara and Tehran over breaches of the truce, and the attempt of the regime and its allies to control the strategic Barada valley west of the capital, Damascus, before going to (Astana Conference), the capital of Kazakhstan, which is planned to take place later this month (January), in response to the opposition warning that they would react to any violation to the truce. In light of all this, is Astana Conference going to succeed while the absence of the American component? Or will who was behind the killing of the Russian ambassador not allow for a Russian-Turkish success in Syria? What is the future of the Turkish-Russian relations in light of the Russian-Iranian relations? Is the role of Moscow going to turn from being a party in the conflict to a director of it?

About Moscow Declaration

The three parties (Russia, Turkey and Iran) did not reach to a detailed agreement and a clear roadmap on the Syrian file. Therefore, they listed only their outlines according to (Moscow Declaration), in preparation for Astana Conference. Agreements and disagreements between the foreign ministers of the three countries showed up during what came in a joint press conference.

Points agreed upon can be identified as follows: Everyone agreed that Syria remains united under a democratic (secular) system. The statement also emphasized the importance of the fight against terrorism, the cease-fire, and the political solution option in Syria. It was interesting what Reuters quoted from Lavrov that Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed that the priority in Syria is "the fight against terrorism and not the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad," which the Turkish Foreign Minister did not comment on.

For the points of disagreement, they were on the designation of terrorist groups. What Turkey cares for most is classifying the Democratic Union Party or (PYD) as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Çavuşoğlu, said that the cease-fire must include militias that are fighting along with the Syrian regime, in reference to Hezbollah. In his response, the Iranian Minister, Javad Zarif, said that the war will be against groups that are classified (terrorist) by the United Nations such as Fateh al-Sham Front (formerly al-Nusra) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

International Conflicting Goals

There is no doubt that Syria has become an arena for international conflicts, and has been associated, indirectly, to other files such as Ukraine and the economic interests between Russia and Turkey, as well as Iran and Israel. Even the Egyptian regime is using the Syrian file as a pressure card against Saudi Arabia. However, the danger posed on the region by the conflict in Syria, which is feared to lead to an international war of attrition in case parties go too far in the use of military force, may prompt international, particularly regional, parties to make concessions. Perhaps the Russian response to the invitation of Turkey was as a result of the Russians feeling the danger of their attrition and enticement by the United States in Syria. So, many observers believe that the Turkish-Russian insistence on the success of the Astana conference reveals the size of common denominators between the two parties, unlike the Iranian position. It is important to know the position of the parties towards the next Astana conference.

- Russia

Russia realizes the importance of the time of which the U.S. administration seems to be preoccupied with the transfer of powers to the new administration. It seeks to impose a state of settlement in Syria according to its interests, taking advantage of the Turkish-Iranian competition on the Syrian and Iraqi file in particular. In spite of Moscow's strong relationship with the next U.S. President Donald Trump, it does not want a strong U.S. presence which would weaken its presence. It wants to keep having the first word in the Syrian file. On the other hand, Russia sees that its victory in the battle of Aleppo is an opportunity to maintain its image and pull out with the spirit of the victor. Also, Russia sees that it has achieved its goal in saving its ally from falling and in controlling the Syrian file keys through balancing between Iran and Turkey, so that it can keep holding the strings of the game. It knows that the two parties, Turkey and Iran, enjoy influence and acceptance on the ground more than it does, and it should control the file, and link the two parties with binding agreements. Moreover, it believes that the goal for which it entered has been achieved, which is the presence of military bases that are the most powerful in the country, as well as the control of the Syrian coast to prevent any projects that might threaten its security or economy such as the Qatari gas project that was meant to get to Turkey and then to Europe. Tehran understands this goal and even shares it.

Perhaps Moscow's success in Syria, investing the international and regional vacuum there, has given it more capacity to act in the region, which may encourage it to trend towards imposing its influence in Libya with Egyptian-Algerian support, so that Moscow becomes on the southern bank of the Mediterranean Sea (Libya), after it seized control over the eastern bank in Syria, at the opposite bank of the European Union. What promotes that is the visit of General Khalifa Haftar to Russia twice in the past year in 2016.

- Turkey

Ankara found itself compelled to the rapprochement with Moscow, and the preservation of its remaining gains in Syria due to the coldness of its relationship with the U.S. administration, after the latter's support for the Kurdish forces in Syria which Turkey  considers as a real threat to its national security, in addition to the dubious role of the United States of America in the failed coup operation and its abstaining to hand over (Fethullah Gulen), the prime suspect in the coup attempt operation on July 15, 2016.

After terrorist operations got increased in Turkey, the Turks realized that if the war in Iraq and Syria did not end, the raging fire there would drag their country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed on that last Thursday, January 5, 2017, after the bombings of the city of Izmir, when said: "We know that every bomb and any move in Turkey have a relation with what is happening in Syria and Iraq, and we know that if we do not achieve stability for our brothers there, to live a dignified and stable life, we will not be able to live it here." This explains why Ankara is working on securing its borders, hitting the Kurdish militias and preventing the Russian support from them. It also explains its efforts to controlling the city of al-Bab in the operation of (Euphrates Shield), and liberating it from the militants of ISIL. This is at the forefront of the reasons that made Turkey not escalate against the Russians in the battle of Aleppo.

With regard to the armed groups affiliated to Iran, which exceeded 12 factions at least, Turkey is seeking to exert pressure to take them out of Syria according to the clause of (the departure of foreign fighters), which Tehran is afraid of and it may get in haggling with Turkey because of it. The statement by the Iranian supreme leader's advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, that Hezbollah is not withdrawing from Syria after the cease-fire agreement, is an expression of the Iranian fears towards these agreements. It is concerned if they will be at the expense of its influence in Syria.

At the international level, Ankara does not seem worried about the U.S reaction towards its rapprochement with the Russians, especially that the new U.S President, Trump, is having a relationship with Russia. Rather, the Turks will try to take advantage of the state of competition between Russia and the European Union countries on one hand, and the United States and Iran on the other.

- How Does Iran Perceive the Agreement?

Unlike the Russian and Turkish parties, Iran seems worried about the new U.S. President Trump's policies, which may prompt Tehran to stick to its Russian ally, albeit at the expense of some of its partial interests. It is clear that Iran was forced to accept the agreements signed between Russia and Turkey after the control of the Syrian regime forces over the city of Aleppo in order to avoid any disagreement between them and Russia, which might strengthen the Turkish position. According to statements by some Iranian officials, it is clear that Iran was willing to extend more under the Russian ally cover.

A report translated by (Arabic 21) website from (Tabnak), the famous Iranian website owned by General Mohsen Rezaee, the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has pointed out, about the latest developments in Syria after the last Russian-Turkish rapprochement, that they will not be in Iran's interest.

In this report, the fear of the participation of the Turks as a party parallel to Russia, while Iran's role remains marginal is evident, stating that "everything looks as if it goes in favor of Iran in Syria, nevertheless, what dislodges the guise of optimism in front of our eyes all is the developments witnessed in the past few weeks, represented in Moscow tripartite meeting between Tehran, Moscow and Ankara. What we see now is that Iran has become in this alliance like the actor who is sitting in a left corner, while the security agendas in Syria are being transferred gradually to Moscow and Ankara. "

Also said, "Although the Kremlin has stated that there was an Iranian role in the agreement, its lack thereof in terms of field work and being officially among the guarantors of the agreement was the fundamental point that had not been discussed."

Added (Tabnak), "All these issues tell us one thing that the very least estimate in terms of strategic importance for Russia indicates that Turkey is more important for Moscow than Iran, and the proof for that is that Russia is now moving towards more cooperation with Turkey in its Syrian initiative. This initiative has become in the hands of the Turks and the Russians, and in consultation finally with Iran, ostensibly it seems."

As a result, Tehran is trying to achieve a field gain by controlling some of the strategic areas before going to Astana conference. Most importantly, (Barada strategic valley), consisting of 13 villages (ten of them are pro-opposition and three are under the regime's control). The significance of the valley is that:

- First, it Contains the main source of drinking water for the capital Damascus (Fijeh spring).

- Second, it is located at a distance of 15 kilometers from the capital Damascus, so the operation is aimed at emptying the vicinity of Damascus from any future threats.

- Third, its significance also resides in being the connecting route between the capital Damascus and the Lebanese border, which extends over an estimated area of 17 square kilometers.

Determinants Drive Towards Solution

  • The Turkish-Russian insistence on the implementation of the cessation of hostilities.
  • The eight-point agreement reached (Moscow Declaration).
  • The announcement of the Russian General Staff to reduce their troops in Syria.
  • The Syrian parties realization of the importance of a political solution, after the inability of any of them to resolve the battle militarily during the past years.
  • The victory of the President Donald Trump which encouraged the Russians to move to other priorities, and worried the Iranians, and pushed them to stick more to Moscow.
  • The successive terrorist bombings in Turkey which prompted it to make more concessions, and to exert pressure on the opposition to accept a political settlement with the regime.
  • The changing of the U.S. administration (from being a competitive administration for Russia's role to an administration that may become indistinguishable with it).

Determinants Drive Towards War

  • The lack of trust among international and local parties, Turkey and Iran, regime and opposition, respectively.
  • The size of sectarian incitement over the past years.
  • The presence of foreign fighters in the Syrian inside.
  • The possibility of Iran's refusal to the exit of Hezbollah from Syria.
  • The absence of a Syrian mediate party which can be accepted by the parties as a compromise for a transitional period.
  • The resentment of some western countries, such as Germany and France, at the new Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

Possible Scenarios

- At the Field Level

Through the above, it is clear that the premise of resolving the crisis politically is most probable through long talks, with the continuation of some side battles. It is expected that the opposition is heading, with international support, towards activating the local councils, forming and integrating fighters into the regular army, as well as establishing governmental institutions to manage the transitional period.

- At the Political Level (Astana Conference)

The Russians and Turks will make sure to invite the Americans, as well as the United Nations, who blessed the agreement. Arab countries may also attend such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Algeria. Russia will try to prove that the previous U.S. administration was the cause of delaying the solution in Syria. The Russians and Turks will perhaps make sure that the new U.S. President attend the Conference, as his first political activity, since the timing of the conference early this month coincides with the date of Trump receiving the reins of power in the White House.

For the output, it is expected that the Russians, Turks and Iranians, as well as Syrian parties, are now working on drafting the implementation plan. The chances of success appear larger as compared to the previous ones, but may find it difficult to implement. In other words, the Syrian situation needs special attention by the international sponsors, otherwise the parties will not succeed in further implementation as a result of the lack of trust between the parties.

For The Impact on the Russian-Turkish Relations

There are several factors driving towards the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, some of which are strategic political, such as the relationship of the two parties with the United States of America, and the cold relationship between Turkey and the European Union, which would weaken the role of NATO, which Moscow counts dangerous alliance to its security, and vice versa. And some others are economic, such as dealing with the two currencies, the Russian ruble and Turkish lira (RUB - TRY), as well as the strategic projects such as the (Turkish Torrent) for transporting 63 billion cubic meters; of which 47 billion cubic meters will be pumped for the European market, while 16 billion cubic meters will be allocated for the Turkish consumption, according to Anadolu Agency.

This means that the determinants of rapprochement are now more than ever. Even the killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara passed in a smooth way, never expected by anyone.

Tehran understands this rapprochement. It is now using Russia as a steed it rides, as that is a Turkish penetration to it interests, and a threat to its influence. Nonetheless, the American alternative for Tehran does not seem to be the preferred option, which may requires them to stay by the side of Russia. However, that will undoubtedly result in a Turkish-Iranian competition, its features are obvious, and Russia will feed it so as to bring about a balance of powers in the region, through which it can manage the conflict and control its parties.

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