Iran has been consolidating its presence in Aleppo after Syrian regime forces and regime-affiliated militias took control of the city with support from Iranian militias and Russian aircraft. Iran is now seriously enmeshed in the battle for Idlib after being inactive during the previous months, when it did not participate in the battles led by Russia in the eastern Idlib countryside.
This previous lack of action was intended to prevent tensions with Turkey, which Iran relied upon for support, especially after the Trump administration’s increased sanctions. But though Iran is now taking action, it should still be able to preserve the relationship – because it is too valuable to lose for both sides.
Iran’s spread in Aleppo
Iran is transforming the southern Aleppo countryside into a space for its militias and military bases. It built a major military base in Jabl Azzan, about 15 kilometres south of the city of Aleppo. This base contains a number of surface-to-surface and surface-to-air Russian Scud missiles. There are also about 200 Iranian soldiers, including officers, and the base oversees the operations of all Shia militias.
Iran has set up camps in the villages of the southern Aleppo countryside to train brigades from the two Shia villages of Kifraya and al-Fuah, which were emptied of their inhabitants after the agreement with the Sham Liberation Army and other factions.
Iran moved some of its command centres to other locations, fearing that the Israelis would target them, since they had previously struck some of their positions in the southern Aleppo countryside. The centre located in the village of Ain Assan about 12 kilometres from the Aleppo airport was moved to the village of Kafr Abeed, and the observation centre in the village of Harbil, located 10 kilometres from Aleppo, was moved to al-Hajib in Jabl al-Hass, about 35 kilometres from Aleppo.
Russia is now involved in overseeing defensive operations in the southern Aleppo countryside, but its influence pales in comparison to Iran’s in the area.
The evolving Iranian-Turkish relationship
Since the 2016 coup attempt, after which Ankara re-evaluated its alliances, Turkey has developed an economic relationship with Iran that reflects the political conditions in Syria. While Turkey had previously supported anti-regime factions, it began to propose solutions that benefitted the regime, such as the agreements it signed in Astana and Sochi, which were signed with Iran and Russia.
After Iran found itself under increasing sanctions, Turkey proved to be a helpful ally in resisting these pressures. The relationship was therefore transformed into a partnership without Iran having to give up on any of its objectives in Syria in order to help Turkey.
On the other hand, Turkey no longer concerns itself with the Syrian civil war, except as it pertains to its fears regarding consequences of the humanitarian crisis, and security concerns about millions of Syrians in Turkey who have fled from the conflict to the Turkish borders.
What unites Turkey and Iran is more than what separates them. Iran needs Turkey as an economic outlet from the imposed international sanctions, and Turkey is benefiting economically from this situation. Iran also shares with Turkey many concerns that affect the national security of the two countries, the most important of which is concern over the spread of Kurdish separatist projects to their regions. Turkey has also found in Iran an ally in disputes with Saudi Arabia.
There is the potential for some conflict over control of Aleppo – Iran is not ready to give up Aleppo after the resources it committed there, while Turkey has not hidden its desire to annex Aleppo to its spheres of influence and control in Syria.
But in general, there will not be a major crisis between the two parties due to Turkey’s domestic situation, its perception that the West has abandoned its alliance and the hostility of the Arab axis. Turkey also does not want to lose the two most important countries that are its political and economic partners.
Another major reason for the lack of greater tension between Turkey and Iran is that Iran has achieved what it wants in Syria regardless of Turkey. Even if Turkey supports opposition factions militarily, this support will not change the de facto map imposed by Iran and Russia in Syria.