In Ankara, fault lines widen between Russia, Iran and Turkey over Syria

They may tout their unity on Syria but at this week's meeting it was divisions that were laid bare

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) leave after a press conference following a trilateral meeting on Syria, in Ankara on September 16, 2019. AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) leave after a press conference following a trilateral meeting on Syria, in Ankara on September 16, 2019. AFP

While Russia, Turkey and Iran have gone to great lengths to show a united front when it comes to the Syrian conflict, when they met in the Turkish capital on Monday it was their disagreements that were on display.

The fifth meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan came at a pivotal moment in the war, now in its eighth year.

In what is being touted as a final showdown, Russia and the Syrian regime are attempting to wrest control of the last bastion of armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

A delicate ceasefire between the Islamists and rebels who control the Idlib province and regime forces has mostly held for several weeks. But Mr Al Assad, along with the help of Iran and Russia, appears determined to restore full territorial control.

A joint statement released by the three leaders after a day of talks on the future of the conflict in Ankara “reiterated their determination to enhance the trilateral coordination in light of their agreements.”

But a press conference following the meeting laid bare where their goals diverge.

Mr Erdogan, worried about a massive influx of refugees fleeing a full-scale Russian backed offensive on Idlib, called for joint controlled “safe zone” in northern Syria that he said could provide a safe haven to some 3 million displaced persons.

But neither the Russian president nor the Iranian leader picked up on the suggestion during comments to the press. The joint statement made no mention of Mr Erdogan’s safe zone.

Indeed, the area is already supposed to be under a “de-escalation agreement” that would have negated the need for the ground and air offensive being waged. But it was never fully implemented – hardline groups refused to hand over arms – and the regime push began.

Rather, Mr Putin emphasized that "Russia, on its part, plans to support the Syrian army while it carries local operations aimed at removing the terrorist threat where it emerges".

Alexei Khlebnikov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, which was established to advise the Kremlin, said the talks fundamentally did not break this impasse.

“To be honest, no game-changer happened during the trilateral summit on Syria,” he said. Everything is the same, Mr Khlebnikov said, there is still “no mechanism to sort out Idlib.”

When the three leaders met in September last year, Mr Erdogan undertook to negotiate a lasting ceasefire with the armed groups in the northwestern province.

Since Russia and the Syrian regime began their push in Idlib in April, the United Nations says that more than 500,000 people have fled their homes, with many heading for the closed Turkish border.

The regime and Russia have been accused of targeting civilian infrastructure with dozens of schools or medical facilities damaged airstrikes. Mr Erdogan initially chastised the Kremlin and Mr Al Assad’s army, saying that attacks on schools could not be seen as fighting terrorism.

What's more, the Turkish president’s army controls 12 observation towers in Idlib and he warned that Ankara would retaliate against any Syrian government attack on their posts.

But Mr Erdogan’s objections alone do not mean Russia will halt its push to help Mr Assad reclaim all of Syria’s territory.

“The Russians will not suspend the operation, but they will do it in a way that does will harm the Turkish goals,” says Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Turkey-based Omran Centre.

Russia’s doesn’t “have the luxury right now of harming the Turkish position in Syria, but at the same time, Turkey needs to provide some kind of insurance about the extremist influence in Idlib,” Mr Oliver told The National.

“It's like a give-and-take relationship right now – for the time being,” he concluded. “I’m not sure that this will continue.”

Published: September 17, 2019 04:52 PM


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