President Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Ankara as guarantor states’ leaders on behalf of Syria. The important points of the main agenda of the three leaders, who had met most recently on 14 February in Sochi, Russia, were to provide a permanent ceasefire in Idlib and to allow people to return to their homes; the plan for a safe zone between the United States and Turkey in the east of the Euphrates; developments in Manbij and Tall Rifat; works on Constitutional Committee; protecting the integrity of Syria during the political transition process. The last agenda is important since both Russia and Iran have been attaching importance to this topic since the beginning of the Astana talks.
It is possible to state that the trilateral summit, which had been started between the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran as the Astana meetings, generate significant results in terms of strengthening security and stability in the Middle East. Especially Moscow’s fine diplomacy contributed to the normalization of the situation in Syria. Astana summits strengthened economic and political ties between the three countries. Additionally, it is also necessary to add that the military relations between Turkey and Russia have consolidated too.
Dialogue Urged with Damascus Regime
Russia, which has not changed its stance about Syria’s territorial integrity, transition to the constitutional process, and the neutralization of the terrorist groups since the Syrian crisis began, urged Turkey and Iran both to provide humanitarian aid and political support for the realization and activation of the establishment of the Constitutional Committee. Russia also emphasized on dialogue with the Damascus regime for a stabilized Syria. Same emphasis was also voiced by Rouhani, who stated “free and independent Syria”, “Syrian people must decide their own future themselves”.
The Russian media as a whole evaluated the Ankara summit as successful for Moscow. Roman Shimaev wrote that the US presence in Syria poses a threat in his analysis on Russian Today. Ankara has been negotiating with visiting US military and diplomatic officials since July in order to establish a safe zone in the east of the Euphrates. As a result of the negotiations between the US and Turkish authorities, it had been decided to establish a Joint Operation Centre in Sanliurfa.
Then, joint air and land patrols had been carried out on the Syrian side of the border. Moscow adumbrated their discomfort about these joint steps taken between the US and Turkey, and it seems to be backing away from the idea of the establishment of a safe zone in the east of Euphrates. That is why the emphasises on Syria’s territorial integrity, independence, and the will of the people are clearly expressed. Rouhani, who came to Ankara on 15 September for the summit, stated, “The illegal presence of the United States and other forces in the east of Euphrates prevented this region of Syria from embracing peace.
Different Approaches About Idlib
Stanislav Tarasov, who evaluated the summit in his column at Regnum News Agency, focused on Idlib, one of the most important agenda items today. He wrote about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s increasing attacks in the region recently by stating that the Syrian army has been fighting against this Al-Qaeda-linked group and its affiliates in Idlib on the border of Turkey.
He also thinks that this is a result of Turkey breaking its promise which was given about a year ago. Ankara had to abide by the decision of Moscow and Tehran. Backed by Russia and Iran, Syrian State forces are trying to re-take the control of Idlib, which is the last region in the hands of dissidents. The areas, which were controlled by the dissidents two years ago, were declared a “de-conflict zone”. Most of the dissidents, including the radical groups in these regions, immigrated to Idlib under the cease-fire agreements reached at the end. Russia, Iran, and Turkey established observation points in this region.
On the other hand, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) was excluded from the cease-fire conditions because it was accepted as a “terrorist organization” by all three countries. The Damascus regime, which declared war against the HTS, has recently increased its attacks towards Idlib and its surrounding areas thanks to the support of Russia and Iran.
Putin Made It Clear
It is noticeable that Russian President Putin’s speech reveals the separation between Turkey and the other partners of the summit.
Putin said, “We can reach peace and stability in Syria through political means”, “We are the three countries supporting the territorial integrity of Syria”, “We will support the Syrian army with limited operations in order to eliminate terrorism. Our agreement does not involve terrorist organizations”, and once again declared that they support the Damascus regime. And both Putin and Rouhani have shown co-operation with Assad as a solution.
Putin also reacted clearly to the American presence there: “US forces are illegally present in Syria. We believe that Mr. Trump will perform his decision to withdraw.”
“All states in the region, including Turkey, have the right to protect its own security.”
“We are all in favour of the territorial integrity of Syria. All foreign elements must withdraw from Syria.”
These approaches were also reflected in the jointly announced final declaration.
Adana Agreement on the Table Again
The trilateral summit in Ankara did not produce results that would change the basic strategy envisaged by Russia in Syria in many respects. In other words, the expectations of the Turkish side was not actualized. Iran and Russia reminded Ankara more strictly of the steps that will be taken within the framework of the Adana Agreement as an option. In this way, narrowing down the areas controlled by Turkey and the cooperation between Damascus and Ankara were highlighted. Together with the establishment of the Constitutional Committee, the objective will be to create appropriate conditions in order to send the Syrians refugees both in Turkey and other regions back to their countries.
Arif Asalioglu is a journalist and a Russia expert based in Moscow.