A week of exceptionally significant high-level diplomatic visits and talks in Tehran and Moscow, covering Syria, Iran and the region, following rising tension in the aftermath of Suleimani’s assassination near Baghdad airport two weeks ago, took place. The subsequent retaliation by Iran which lobbed some 13 medium and long-range ballistic missiles on the American quarter of Ain al Assad air base north of Baghdad and another airstrip in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan province, used by the US forces serving in Iraq was also discussed. Repercussions including a public official apology, responsibility acceptance, arrests and possible resignations of three top army and security Iranian officers, keep coming from Tehran in the wake of the embarrassing accidental shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner Flight 752. The incident took place shortly after taking off from Tehran airport on the night of the missile attack, killing all 176 onboard; an incident which appears to have added much-unneeded salt to Tehran’s injury, caused by the US drone assassination of Iran’s top military and security asset, and perhaps its most popular figure and national icon in decades. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reaffirmed that those responsible for the airliner’s downing shall be brought to justice, with 30 arrests made so far by Iran’s judicial authorities.
Mediation efforts gain momentum as allies rally around Tehran
Most notable was the visit by the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to Tehran who was received by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, signifying the importance of whatever message the Emir was carrying to the Iranians. Speculations varied regarding a possible mediation and toning down escalation between the US and Iran. Qatar is home to the largest US base in the region, al Udeid, and enjoys strong ties to both Washington and Tehran. Simultaneously, a high-ranking Syrian delegation including Prime Minister Imad Khamis, Defence Minister Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayoub and Foreign Minister Walid Al Muallem landed in Tehran, a couple of days after a landmark and unusually announced visit by the Syrian Chief of National Security, the influential General Ali Mamlouk who met with his Iranian counterpart General Ali Shamkhani.
The stated purpose of the official Syrian delegation’s visit to Tehran was to offer condolences following the assassination and painful loss of a close ally and key player in the fight against terrorism in Syria, Iraq and the region, and the handing by Gen. Ayoub to his Iranian counterpart Gen. Hatemi of Syrian President’s highest Order of Merit (The Champion of the Republic) was bestowed by Assad on Suleimani after his martyrdom. It is evident that the two visits by top Syrian diplomatic and security officials carried much more than that. Gen. Ali Mamlouk flew from Tehran to Moscow, where he participated in a landmark trilateral meeting which included the Turkish intelligence and national security chief, Hakan Fidan; the first-ever such high-level direct meeting between Syrian and Turkish officials.
Talks focused on the future of Idlib as well as security arrangements in all areas where Turkish forces and proxy militias operate and have been a stumbling block to any truce or political settlement. Turkey keeps some dozen military observation posts in Syria under the Sochi deal reached by presidents Putin and Erdogan in September 2018. Anti-government armed groups and terrorist organisations including al Nusra Front (Syria’s version of al Qaeda) have frequently breached the agreement, rejected laying down their arms, removing heavy weapons from the buffer ‘De-escalation Zone’ and even systematically took refuge in and around Turkish military bases in Syria during confrontations with the Syrian army which made significant advances last year liberating all of Hama’s western countryside along with parts of Idlib’s eastern rural areas including dozens of towns, villages, strategic hills and strongholds held by terrorists for over six years.
Russian-mediated breakthrough confirms Moscow’s key role in Syria
Anyone who knows the pivotal role and exceptional powers of General Ali Mamlouk in Syria and Hakan Fidan in Turkey-(I know them both personally)-, could easily sus out the significance of this extraordinary meeting between two of the most influential people in Syria and Turkey, and closest security officials to the leaders of the two nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin has every right to raise his glass to the occasion and celebrate this ice-breaking and long-awaited major achievement. Without direct security collaboration and trust-building process between Syrian and Turkish military and intelligence apparatus, it is rather impossible to render any political agreement by Putin and Erdogan viable and feasible on the ground.
Although some on-and-off meetings between the two country’s security and military officers had been reported in the past – President Assad himself referred to such meetings in a recent TV interview -, the Moscow encounter between Gen. Mamlouk and the ‘Wolf of Anatolia’, Erdogan’s saviour and right-hand man, was the first such meeting to be officially announced by both nations since the Syria conflict broke out in 2011. Many argue or hope that such bilateral talks could sooner or later culminate in a summit between the arch enemies presidents Assad and Erdogan. An unlikely event in the near future at least, but depending on Ankara’s commitment towards the sovereignty of Syria and its territorial integrity, and given the resolve and enigma of an exceptional leader and mediator such as President Putin, who keeps many aces up his sleeve to be deployed at critical moments, nothing in world politics is considered categorically impossible despite all the outspoken intransigence, heated rhetoric and fiery exchanges between the two leaders every now and then.