Further unity comes out of Idlib summit

Alwaght – The presidents of Russia, Iran, and Turkey held their fourth Syria meeting on Thursday in the Russian resort city of Sochi to discuss Astana peace process and further paving the way for political solutions to the Syrian crisis. One important point of discussion was the US forces’ withdrawal from the crisis-hit country that necessitates the coordination between the three remaining major actors in Syria. Another case was the power gain of Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group and the cancelation of an earlier pact between Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara on the terms of the ceasefire in the Syrian city of Idlib, the only major stronghold of the enemies of President Bashar al-Assad.

Another issue for debate is northern Syria region which sees the confrontation of Turkey with the US-aligned Kurdish forces. If Washington moves out of Syria, the situation will be more ready for the Turkish-Kurdish dispute to be settled.

How to start a political process through a constitution review committee, which initially laid the foundation for the Sochi meetings, is another challenge the players find ahead of them unresolved. Add to these issues other key cases like the return of the refugees, fight against ISIS terrorists in the eastern areas, reconstruction, humanitarian aids facilitation, and the intermittent Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets. All these toughen the negotiations for the three parties.

First, it must be said that the very holding of Sochi meeting again and issuing a joint statement signals that the three countries are still committed to dialogue and find the past cooperation useful and seek its continuation. Preserving the Syrian territorial integrity, speeding up the refugees return, effectively fighting ISIS, and the demand for the US pullout was the key cooperation cases finding their way to the final statement. The recent summit, while the American President Donald Trump insists on the withdrawal, in addition to highlighting the Western policy failure in Syria marked the widening gaps between Ankara and its Western allies and the Turkish drifting toward a partnership with Russia and Iran in the future of the regional developments. They stated that “the three countries discussed the recent global developments and their cooperation in a set of areas and decided to expand their economic and trade partnership.

Sochi and Turkish-Kurdish interests

The Syrian Kurds and the future of the areas under their control remain a concern for the Turkish leaders. With the US pullout, as much as the situation could move to a direct confrontation, it could go towards détente. Last week, when the Saudi-sponsored Syrian opposition traveled to the Iraqi Kurdish region, the head of the delegation Ahmad Jarba, a former head of the Syrian opposition body, proposed that safe zones be set up in the north with an Arab-Kurdish joint administration and disarmament of the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), the main force in control of the northern region. Apparently, Iran and Russia which support the Syrian integrity and the central government do not approve such a proposal and instead want the Kurdish forces to reconcile with Damascus in a process that will see the national army taking control of the borders. If the Syrian Arab Army be in control in the north, a security guarantee will be provided for both Ankara and the Kurds. Before the meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said that Syrian sovereignty can be restored only if the Kurdish forces move out of Manbij town as well as the Eastern Euphrates areas close to the Turkish border.

The three countries’ emphasis on the Syrian integrity and confronting activities destabilizing the security of Syria neighbors in the final statement indicated a common understanding of the parties’ interests in the northern areas, though Ankara remains hopeful to get Moscow and Tehran’s green light for a safe zone in exchange for compromises in Idlib case through pressing the Kurds and even doing demographic changes in the northern areas by transferring Arabs from other parts of Syria.

Idlib twist

Certainly, one of the key points of the discussion at Sochi meeting was the future of Idlib in northwestern Syria. The province, the only major region still not regained by the Syrian army, had 1 million population before the crisis. But transfer of the opposition fighters and their families now makes the province accommodating a population of 2-3 million.

In September last year, according to a Turkish-Russian deal, Ankara shouldered a responsibility to disarm the Idlib-based terrorist groups, which hold contacts with Turkey. But Tahrir al-Sham expanded its operations and ground since then, making the Turkish ability to get it out of the province highly doubted. Still, during Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s trip to Ankara, the two sides announced an agreement reached on Idlib without any elaboration, adding further dialogue will be held in Sochi.

But the sides did not meet expectations for an elaboration on the Idlib agreement in Sochi. Except for efforts to counter the Tahrir al-Sham’s attempts to broaden its area of influence and also work jointly to prevent further violations in Idlib ceasefire, no other issues came to surface on the southwestern province. What is clear is that after the Sochi summit, the Syrian army’s military operation in Idlib in near future is unlikely. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday noted that the three countries decided to do more for the ceasefire in Idlib as the “stronghold of terrorists” and so a military operation was not on the agenda.

As a conclusion of Sochi meeting, we can note that the three countries will engage in cooperation to fill the possible US vacuum after the pullout of the northern regions, guarantee the neighbors’ security and interests through stabilization of the north, and protect the Syrian territorial integrity through effective war against the terrorists. A growing partnership will fully exhibit the Western defeat in the Syrian crisis, of course.