Turkish, Russian, and Iranian leaders give contrasting messages on Syria

The presidents of  Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed during the 5th Trilateral Astana Summit on Monday to fight against terrorist groups in Syria’s strife torn Idlib region.

The meeting in Ankara was held to discuss plans to halt fighting in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib and find a lasting political solution to the civil war in the country..

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in a discussion on the situation in Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria.

The Astana Process, a ceasefire treaty to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone was agreed on by Turkey and Russia in September 2018. It allowed for the setting up of 12 ceasefire observatory points in the zone, and the latter 10 posts.

Erdogan said the threat of Islamic State (ISIS) had been at this point eliminated in Syria, adding that the greatest threat to the country’s territorial integrity was the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and  what Ankara considers offshoots, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

ISIS or Daesh (Arabic acronym) declared a self-proclaimed caliphate in 2014 and took control of large parts of Syria and Iraq. The caliphate has since collapsed but continued to conduct a series of terror attacks.

Erdogan added that one of Turkey’s focuses was the tension in Idlib and that Turkey cannot remain silent in the face of a new tragedy at the country’s border that would affect four million people.

Putin, however, said ISIS sleeper cells were becoming active again in northern Syria and also restated that Idlib was controlled by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

“The situation in Idlib is concerning. The area is almost completely under control of groups allied with al-Qaeda. We cannot, of course, put up with this. Our accords do not include terrorist organizations. We are prepared to take any steps to keep the civilian population from harm,” the Russian president said.

Echoing Putin, Iran’s Rouhani said the presence of terrorist organizations had grown stronger in certain parts of Idlib.

“For the last nine years, the Syrian people have suffered at the hands of terrorists. We know who supports these terrorists. We must fight terrorists,” the Iranian president said.

Both Russian and Iranian leaders stressed that ensuring stability in the area would only be possible if the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad takes control in the region.

“We believe that approaches by some seeking to change the administration in Syria have lost all validity in light of the experience during the nine years of the Syrian crisis,” Rouhani said.

Moscow and Tehran support the al-Assad regime, while Ankara has been backing the rebels, notably the former al-Qaeda affiliate HTS.

The al-Assad regime with the help of Russia and Iran has reclaimed control of most of the country from an array of rebel factions.

At the beginning of the civil war, Erdogan’s Turkey first called for al-Assad’s ousting but has since shifted its priority to prevent a mass influx of refugees from Idlib in Syria’s northwest. This has made al-Assad’s position to look  gradually secure.

“We have agreed that ISIS and terrorist organizations will not be supported, and posed our suggestions for establishing peace and an environment where refugees can return,” the Turkish president said.

Erdogan had recently threatened to open his country’s borders, allowing a flood of refugees into Europe, if Turkey does not receive adequate international support for setting up a safe zone in northern Syria where it plans to resettle one million refugees.

“We cannot tolerate another influx of refugees, that is impossible,” Erdogan said.

Erdogan also provided details on his plans to construct a refugee city in the Kurdish-controlled area east of the Euphrates, along the 450-km border, by utilizing the country’s public housing authority, TOKI, which would be building houses with gardens that can be used to grow food.

In recent months Turkey and the United States (US) have been hashing out details of the safe zone in the region. In August, they set up a joint operation center in Turkey. They have, however, so far disagreed over the size and oversight of the zone.

The two NATO allies also began joint patrols in the planned safe zone last week, surveying the area to the east of the Euphrates River.

However, Russia’s leader said following the summit that foreign troops should be pulled out of Syria once security is ensured and all issues of combating terrorism are resolved. Syria’s territorial integrity should be restored completely, Putin said.

Putin demands a constitutional committee be established to oversee the next stage of the political settlement in the country.

Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group, told AFP news agency that such a committee would give Putin a political win to add to Russia’s military victories.

Khalifa added that expectations for the committee should remain low, even if the three countries could agree on who will form it.

“This leaves a crux of issues unaddressed for the future of the political process including the regime’s ability and willingness to undertake any kind of political reform,” Khalifa said.

Putin said the trio wish to accelerate dialogue in Syria. Guaranteers, the United Nations (UN) experts and countries related to the matter would be holding meetings, with one scheduled for October in Kazakh capital Nursultan, he said.

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