Russia, Iran mount pressure on Turkey over Idlib
As the summit came two months after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, the leaders had the chance to assess the impacts of such a move. The communiqué described the U.S. decision, if implemented, as a step that would help strengthen stability and security in Syria, expressing a cautious, optimist position of the Astana partners.
All three leaders have conveyed, at the press conference, their skepticism about the pace and the scope of the U.S. withdrawal, with Russia and Iran insisting that the Syrian army should take the control of territories to be abandoned by the American troops.
In relation to this, the communiqué also addressed the situation in the northeast of Syria, an area where Turkey wants to set up a security zone against the presence of the YPG. It said the presidents “agreed to coordinate their activities to ensure security, safety and stability in this area including through existing agreements while respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.”
The existing agreements referred to in this communiqué is the 1998-dated Adana accord between Turkey and Syria that stipulates the latter’s responsibilities in stopping the use of its territories as a launch pad by terrorist organizations to attack Turkey.
It should be noted that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Adana accord would best serve to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns. Russia and Iran have urged, once again, that dialogue between Ankara and Damascus was necessary to quell new sources of conflicts and tension in the war-torn country.
Neither Russia nor Iran have been observed as giving a full green light to Turkey’s aspirations in setting up a security zone throughout the summit, although President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his satisfaction over Moscow’s approval of Turkish plans in northeastern Syria. The Russian position is still softer than the Iranian one as Moscow seems to be ready to negotiate for a limited setting along the Turkish-Syrian border.
The issue that dominated the Sochi Summit, however, was the situation in Idlib. The three presidents examined in detail the situation in the de-escalation area, read the communiqué, as they “denounced and expressed serious concern with the attempts of the terrorist organization ‘Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’ to increase its control over the area, and agreed to effectively counter these attempts as well as to take concrete steps to reduce violations” in the enclave.
“They also reaffirmed the determination to continue cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate DAESH/ISIL, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the U.N. Security Council,” it added.
Putin and Rouhani have strongly recalled that measures taken in Idlib were temporary and that patience on the continued presence of jihadist radical groups was wearing thin.
Putin made clear that the attacks of the terrorists will not go unpunished and that the ceasefire agreement brokered between Ankara and Moscow was about to turn into a problem in itself.
“We should not put up with the presence of terrorist groups in Idlib,” Putin said at the summit. “That’s why I propose we consider practical concrete steps that Russia, Turkey, and Iran can take to completely destroy this hotbed of terrorists.”
Rouhani did not say anything very different and strongly accused the U.S. and Israel of supporting these terrorist groups.
Erdoğan, however, insisted on the continuation of the implementation of the protocol, equally accusing the Syrian regime of breaching the Turkish-Russian ceasefire deal. Unlike Putin and Rouhani, Erdoğan highlighted that peace in Syria had never been so close, indirectly urging his partners not to ruin this window of opportunity by suggesting a hasty operation into Idlib.
As this communiqué reiterates that the definitive objective of three guarantor countries is to “ultimately eliminate” all jihadist terror groups in Idlib, it seems an operation is just a matter of time.
Putin and Rouhani will sure be sensitive in not creating trouble for Erdoğan before the upcoming local elections on March 31. The post-election period, however, may witness a change in their positions with regard to eliminating jihadist groups in Idlib in line with a joint decision.