BY DAILY SABAH
Turkey and Iran on Tuesday pledged to strengthen bilateral ties while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined the need to continue fighting terrorist organizations in solidarity.
Terrorist organizations like the PKK, its offshoots and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) are “troublemakers both for Turkey and Iran. We need to continue the fight against them in solidarity,” Erdoğan said during a news conference with his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in the capital Tehran.
The two leaders co-chaired the seventh meeting of the Turkey-Iran High-Level Cooperation Council to enhance bilateral cooperation and signed a total of eight agreements in the areas of trade, social security and sports.
All aspects of Turkey-Iran relations and potential steps to enhance bilateral cooperation were discussed during the meeting, which was held with the participation of relevant ministers. Besides bilateral relations, regional and global matters were also discussed.
Erdoğan said he believes that the countries will increase the bilateral trade volume to $30 billion.
Later in the day, Erdoğan, Raisi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin were set to meet for the seventh trilateral summit meeting in Astana format to discuss the latest developments in Syria and the fight against terrorist organizations.
About the trilateral meeting in Tehran, Erdoğan said the meeting will be a reevaluation of the 2017 Astana process.
Erdoğan arrived in Tehran on Monday night and was received by Raisi on Tuesday morning at the Sadabad Palace.
He later met Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in major state policies.
Iran’s president hosted his Turkish and Russian counterparts on Tuesday for talks on the Syrian war in a three-way summit overshadowed by fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Ankara, Moscow and Tehran will discuss the ongoing civil war in Syria and the fight against terrorism during an Astana format meeting between the three countries’ leaders in Iran.
This is the first summit hosted by Iran’s President Raisi since he took office last year, and the second trip abroad and the first trip outside the former Soviet Union by Putin since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Also, President Erdoğan becomes the first NATO leader to meet face-to-face with Putin since the bloc last month declared Russia the “most significant” threat as NATO leaders endorsed a new Strategic Concept for the military alliance.
Putin, who turns 70 this year, has made few foreign trips in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the Ukraine crisis. His last trip beyond the former Soviet Union was to China in February.
The summit comes days after U.S. President Joe Biden visited the Middle East for the first time since taking office, with stops in Iran’s regional foes Israel and Saudi Arabia.
But the trilateral summit is ostensibly centered on Syria, as part of the “Astana peace process” to end more than 11 years of conflict in the Arab country.
All three are involved in Syria, with Iran and Russia supporting Bashar Assad and Turkey backing the opposition.
The Astana peace process was launched in January 2017 at the initiative of Turkey, Russia and Iran to establish a cease-fire and bring conflict processes under control in Syria. The Astana initiative continues to be used as a platform where political and humanitarian issues are discussed.
High on the agenda in the trilateral talks that will include Turkey will be efforts to reduce violence in Syria, where Erdoğan has pledged to launch more military operations to extend 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep “safe zones” along the border. Moscow and Tehran both oppose any such action by Turkey.
The gathering comes after Erdoğan recently warned that Turkey plans to launch a new operation in northern Syria against the PKK terror group’s Syrian branch, the YPG, which threatens Turkey’s national security and border security.
Erdoğan has said that since the United States and Russia have failed to live up to their commitments to provide a safe zone along the border region, Turkey is ready to mount an operation to protect the nation and locals in northern Syria from the PKK/YPG.
In October 2019, Russia committed to removing the terrorist group from Tal Rifaat and Manbij after reaching an agreement with Turkey during Operation Peace Spring. Moscow also promised that the terrorists would be pulled back 30 kilometers from the border on the M4 highway and in the area outside the Operation Peace Spring zone.
The YPG controls large parts of northern Syria and is regarded by Washington as an important ally against Daesh despite its NATO ally Turkey’s major security concerns and warnings.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey’s planned operation would be discussed, as would reports that Russia and the YPG militants were acting together in some areas of Syria.
Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday told visiting Erdoğan that any operation by Ankara in northern Syria would be “detrimental” to the region.
“This is definitely detrimental to Syria, Turkey, and the region, and will not fulfill the political action expected by the Syrian government,” Khamenei said, according to a statement posted on his official website.
As Russia has been focusing its military capabilities on Ukraine, Iran seems to increase its activities in Syria in favor of the regime amid Turkey’s preparations for a possible operation.
The operation is part of Turkey’s plans to create a safe zone along its border with Syria that would encourage the voluntary return of Syrian refugees.
Humanitarian issues in Syria have also come into focus since Russia used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council last week to force a restriction on aid deliveries to 4.1 million people in Syria’s opposition-held northwest after six months, instead of a year.
Russia intervened in the conflict in 2015, pooling efforts with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants and Iranian forces and using its air power to shore up Assad’s fledgling military and ultimately turning the tide in his favor.
Turkish-backed operations in previous years have ousted the YPG and Daesh terrorists from the northwestern enclave of Afrin and a series of border towns further east. Since 2016, Ankara has launched a trio of successful counterterrorism operations across its border in northern Syria to prevent the formation of a terror corridor and enable the peaceful settlement of residents: Euphrates Shield (2016), Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019).
The summit also enables Erdoğan to hold his first meeting with Putin since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The Tehran trip also offers Putin a chance for a high-stakes meeting with Erdoğan, who has sought to help broker talks on a peaceful settlement of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as well as help negotiations to unblock Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.
Erdoğan’s bilateral talks with Putin will focus on a plan to get Ukrainian grain exports moving again as the Turkish president has for months been offering to meet the Russian leader in a bid to help resolve heightened global tensions.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has massively hampered shipments from one of the world’s biggest exporters of wheat and other grain, sparking fears of global food shortages.
Turkey, a NATO member on speaking terms with both Russia and Ukraine, has spearheaded efforts to resume the grain deliveries.
Turkey has found itself opposite Russia in conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. It has even sold lethal drones that Ukrainian forces have used to attack Russia. But Turkey hasn’t imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, making it a sorely needed partner for Moscow.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned on Monday that Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports threatens supplies to countless thousands vulnerable to starvation.
Borrell dubbed the issue “one of life and death for many human beings.”
Last week, U.N., Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish officials reached a tentative agreement on some aspects of a deal to ensure the export of 22 million tons of desperately needed grain and other agricultural products trapped in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports by the fighting.
Tuesday’s meeting between Putin and Erdoğan could help clear the remaining hurdles, a major step toward alleviating a food crisis that has sent prices of vital commodities like wheat and barley soaring.
“The talks will try to solve the issues on grain exports,” said a senior Turkish official was requested anonymity.
Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations are expected to sign a deal later this week aimed at resuming the shipping of grain from Ukraine across the Black Sea.