Light at the end of the Syrian tunnel?
Are we finally approaching the beginning of the end to the Syrian nightmare? Probably. However, the multidimensional nature of the Syrian ordeal means that even the beginning of this beginning is little more than a dim light at the end of a long tunnel.
An important step was made when Russian President Vladimir Putin met U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam on Nov. 11. During the meeting, the two presidents touched on the complexities of the Syrian situation, mentioning the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as one conflict and the internecine warfare between government forces and opposition groups as another.
The Trump-Putin meeting also allowed the two leaders to celebrate recent gains made against ISIL. These successes are largely due to efficient co-ordination between the two powers.
As to internal struggles between the Syrian government and the opposition, Putin and Trump underlined their preference for a political rather than a military solution to be pursued in Geneva, in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.
The political solution envisioned by the Geneva process has been enhanced by the Russian-led Astana Process, which began earlier this year. This process aims to create four de-escalation zones, to establish a sustainable cease-fire ahead of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.
The Russian-American zone was the first of the four de-escalation zones to be implemented, and is facilitated by the participation of Jordan and monitored by the Amman Monitoring Centre. Putin and Trump have both commended the implementation.
Russia controls two more de-escalation zones, together with the support of the Syrian government.
The fourth de-escalation zone, which is still in the development phase, falls under the responsibility of Turkey and Russia. When Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Sochi last week, one of the main themes of their bilateral discussions was Syria, according to reports. Although more than a month has passed since Turkey’s military engagement in the Idlib area began, neither Putin nor Erdoğan have expressed their satisfaction with the implementation of the de-escalation zone, which marks a sharp contrast to the Putin-Trump arrangement.
Tomorrow, Sochi hosts the trilateral Russia-Iran-Turkey summit with a view to reviewing the road map of the Syrian problem. This meeting will address two aspects of the conflict.
Firstly, the implementation of the Idlib de-escalation zone. Although Turkey and Russia are directly responsible for this zone, the complexity of the various factions of the opposition active there mean Iran and the Syrian government must also contribute to discussions.
Secondly, Russia, Iran and Turkey will also debate the definition of “opposition” in the Geneva process, a task much more difficult than establishing de-escalation zones. Turkey’s objection to the presence of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the Geneva talks is likely to be the main stumbling block. During the meeting of the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran, which took place in Antalya on Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu clarified Turkey’s position to his guests. No doubt President Erdoğan did the same during his bilateral meeting with Putin in Sochi last week.
The meeting in Sochi this week represents an important step toward locating the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether the light remains dim or brightens depends on the skills of Russian diplomats. Russia probably hopes that these skills will benefit from the memorable Olympic spirit of 2014, when the city hosted the XXII Olympic Winter Games.