Did the Sochi summit fulfill ‘high hopes?’
The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey came together in Sochi for the first round of the second tour of talks. The trilateral summit and the bilateral talks between the leaders on the sidelines were instrumental in making decisions for the future of Syria. Cautious eyes captured valuable hints about the future of the region.
The trilateral Sochi talks are based on the Moscow Declaration of Dec. 20, 2016 signed by the foreign ministers of the three countries. The eight-point declaration which was agreed on the following day of the horrible murder of Russian ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov started a process to find a political solution to the Syrian problem based on the U.N. decision of 2254, protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic. The declaration made Turkey, Iran and Russia as the guarantors of the ceasefire.
The first concrete result of the Turkish-Russian-Iranian partnership was the start of the Astana process, following a ceasefire. At the fourth round of talks in Astana in May 2017, de-escalation zones were established in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. A Common Operation Center was established at the 6th Astana talks to monitor de-escalation activities.
The developing partnership of Turkey-Russia and Iran has been followed by the rest of the world with great interest. In November 2017, at the first Sochi Summit, the photograph of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the leaders of two countries under U.S. embargo, along with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose country is a NATO member, raised question marks in the minds of many. According to some commentators, the Turkish-Russian-Iranian partnership was an attempt to counter-balance U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to strengthen the alliance between the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The second meeting of the Sochi process was held in Ankara on April 4, 2018 and the third on Sept. 7 in Tehran. Disagreements over some issues were visible especially in Tehran. But despite this, the three leaders came together in Sochi on Thursday, for the second round of talks.
On Thursday’s meeting, the first disagreement was on Turkey’s efforts to form a safe zone in Syria. Iran and Russia seemed not happy about the idea of Turkish operations in the east of Euphrates. Iranian objections were especially loud at the press conference. Iran is concerned about Turkey’s increasing influence in the region. That’s why he mentioned the rights of Syrian Kurds and pointed the address of Syrian regime to Turkey for negotiation. Similarly, the Russians encouraged Turkey to talk to the regime in accordance with the Adana accord of 1998. Erdogan parried these criticisms. He assured his two counterparts that Turkey will act in accordance with the accord.
Turkey’s position on this issue is crystal clear. President Erdoğan stated that “safe zone must be under the control of Turkey. It must not turn to a safe haven for the PYD and YPG groups, which are affiliated with the terrorist organization PKK.”
From Turkey’s point of view, the Syrian regime has no legitimacy, and the Adana accord is a “hot pursuit” agreement allowing the Turkish military to chase terrorists within Syria. On the way back from Sochi I asked President Erdoğan if there was a distance limit that Turkey can pursue terrorists within Syria, he replied, “There is no definition of the distance and no limit in terms of kilometers written in the accord.” Turkey for this reason assumes that attacking terrorist groups within Syria is legally legitimate and there is no need for further negotiations with the regime. Turkey has its own understanding of the Adana accord and will continue to act according to its own version.
When it comes to the east of Euphrates, Russia and Iran actually do not exist. Turkey’s only counterpart in this part of the country is the United States. Ankara believes that the withdrawal of the U.S. is still unclear and uncertainty still prevails. Turkey expects an increase in military moves by the American military this summer. But if there is no change, it is very likely that Turkey unilaterally goes ahead with its original plan of implementing a military operation in northern Syria until the M4 motorway to clear the area from terrorist groups.
Another statement depicting Iranian discomfort about Turkey’s growing influence in Syria was Rouhani’s statement on Idlib. The Iranian president called on all foreign forces to leave Idlib and transfer control to the Syrian regime.
Turkey’s stance in Idlib is also clear. According to President Erdoğan, Turkey’s presence in Syria is based on the invitation of the Syrian people. “Syrian people invited Turkish troops to Idlib,” he said, adding that “the goal of Turkey in Idlib is to protect civilians from terrorist organizations.” Russian priority in Idlib is to stop attacks against Russian military bases in Latakia. It can be said that Russia is more positive than Iranians when it comes to Turkish control in Idlib.
Despite all the disagreements, the close partnership of three countries, starting with the Moscow Declaration, produced concrete results: The war in Aleppo ended and the level of violence decreased dramatically. All the sides are determined to continue this. Turkey considers the Sochi and Astana talks as complementary to the Geneva talks, not its alternative. As an Istanbul summit on Oct. 27, 2018 with France, Germany and Russia showed, Turkey’s attitude is inclusive.
The Sochi talks will continue with the second tour of the second round in Turkey. The main challenge is to find a way to accelerate the political talks between Syrian groups and proceed to writing a constitution until the next summit.