The trilateral summit in Tehran on September 7 between Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and Hassan Rouhani will be crucial for Ankara.
Not necessarily because it is expected to produce results that miraculously end the Syrian crisis, though.
What the summit is expected to do is provide some clarification as to how Turkey, Russia and Iran, the co-sponsors of the “Astana Process,” hope to deal with the dangerous situation evolving in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib.
Turkey has forces stationed in 12 military outposts in the regions designated as de-escalation zones, under an agreement arrived at by the three countries last year. They are positioned between Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian army, and are supposed to monitor ceasefire violations by the sides.
Not included in the deal, however, are Jihadist groups like Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), which are designated as terrorist organizations, and considered as legitimate targets by the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran.
It is the presence of these groups that Damascus and Moscow cite as the reason why a military operation on Idlib will be necessary.
Turkey acknowledges the presence of these groups in Idlib, but is opposed to a Syrian-Russian offensive. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says that such an operation will be a disaster because it will turn into a massacre of civilians.
In order not to launch and operation Russia expects Turkey to settle the question of the HTS and similar groups in Idlib, but this is not an easy task for Ankara either.
There may be claims in the west that that Turkey is backing these group, but developments on the ground show that they are not under Turkish control, the way other elements in the region may be.
This makes the possibility of an operation against Idlib more likely. Unless, of course, Turkey takes the initiative of going after them itself, in order to avert a Syrian-Russian offensive. Ankara has given no sign that it intends to do this.
There is also no indication that Ankara will be able to incorporate these groups into opposition forces that Russia and Iran accept as non-terrorist outfits, and which will have to negotiate with the regime for peace.
Put it in a nutshell, Turkey is caught between the horns of a dilemma in Idlib, and the Tehran summit will hopefully show if there is a way out for it.
There are other developments that are making Ankara’s job more difficult though. We already know that Moscow is opposed to seeing Turkish forces remain in Syria in the long run, especially in areas that they captured from Kurdish YPG fighters along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Ankara however wants to maintain a military presence in Syria in order to check Kurdish aspirations. It doesn’t trust Moscow to keep the Kurds in line.
Another development this week, which obviously raised eyebrows in Ankara in this regard, was the signing of a comprehensive military cooperation agreement between Damascus and Tehran.
According to press reports http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/dunya/son-dakika-irakta-bomba-yuklu-arac-patlatildi-40940044 the ministers of defense of both countries vowed during the signing ceremony “to liberate the whole of Syria, including Idlib.”
This basically means that Tehran also wants Idlib city and governorate to come under the regime’s control, a fact that Ankara is not prepared to concede under current circumstances.
The inability of the “Astana partners” to resolve the question of Idlib is likely to leave Turkey with a very hot potato on its lap in the coming weeks and months.
What is certain is that if things go badly for Turkey in Idlib, the question of just how much Ankara can rely on its new allies in Syria, namely Russia and Iran, will re-emerge.
Having come to the point of burning bridges with Washington, Ankara cannot afford to see the same happening with Moscow and Tehran. This leaves it with one option, and that is to concede to Russian and Iranian demands, whether it likes it or not.
Put another way, its lack of a coherent Syrian policy, a fact that has been evident on many occasions right from the start of this crisis, may have painted Turkey into yet another corner in Syria.