On September 16, Ankara hosted fifth trilateral summit on Syria between Russia, Iran and Turkey. Although the three leaders – Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani – praised summit’s results and declared unity of their goals and actions in Syria, the reality looks quite different. The most awaited and sensitive topics of the summit were expectedly formation of the Constitutional Committee and situation in Idlib.
According to the leaders’ statements, there are several important factors which will influence further process in Syria.
The most awaited one proved to be achieved – the list of the Syrian Constitutional Committee members was finally agreed upon. However, there is still no clarity when it will convene and what are the procedures and modalities of its work. Together with that, Russian president Vladimir Putin indicated additional challenges ahead of the Committee. First is a chance that “radical” elements within and outside the Committee might sabotage its work and turn it into the useless gathering; and second is that its members must not be influenced by external powers. Therefore, it is quite clear that even with the agreed list of Committee members it is still a lot of work ahead to make it functional and useful body.
Another one is that Putin made it clear – Russia will continue supporting Syrian Arab Army in its local anti-terror operations in Idlib province. Putin repeated this statement a lot of times and it seems that it continues to irritate Turkey.
On the other hand, Russia and Iran expressed their support to Turkey’s plan to pressure the US into striking deal on north east Syria favorable for Ankara. Erdogan plans to create security corridor and resettle up to 2-3 mln refugees there. Most likely, three presidents reached some sort of agreement on coordinated actions in north-east. In fact, resettling of the Syrian refugees from Turkey to east of Euphrates areas along the border might push Kurds to negotiations with Damascus which suits both Tehran and Moscow.
Another notable factor is difference between Russia and Turkey on terrorist threats and priorities. Erdogan clearly stressed that ISIS doesn’t pose any threat to the region anymore while YPG and PKK is the real threat. Putin underlined the problem of activizations of ISIS sleeping cells in north-east Syria which threatens country’s stability. On the one hand, it demonstrates that for Turkey north-east Syria and Kurds is the main priority (not Idlib) while for Russia radical Islamic insurgency remains a major issue. It means that Russia and Turkey won’t have easy time trying to negotiate a compromise on north-east Syrian and SDF-held areas. On the other hand, given strategic priority of Kurds for Ankara it makes Idlib an easier bargaining chip.
Absence of breakthrough
Although all three presidents expressed their satisfaction with talks and stated about important decisions they made which will help to settle the Syrian conflict, it doesn’t seem like it.
In fact, no game-changing decision was made, no breakthrough happened during trilateral summit. In other words, no algorithm of actions was agreed upon and adopted by Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani to address the most important issues in Syria.
After analyzing Vladimir Putin’s statements over the last months – it becomes clear that this particular summit did not make any breakthrough as the situation largely remains the same.
First of all, no mechanism to sort out Idlib problem was agreed and announced. The parties repeated the same statements: They stick to the Sochi deal on Idlib, they remain committed to a joint fight against terrorists in the province, and they stressed a strong commitment to Syria’s sovereignty which envisages eventual return of Idlib under Damascus control.
Secondly, no clear mechanism for dealing with north east Syria was produced either. The situation east of Euphrates remains unchanged. The US troops are still there and Washington doesn’t have a plan what to do with its presence in Syria. Given that any large-scale military operation by Turkey looks unrealistic. Turkey will unlikely take unilateral action even after two-week deadline which Erdogan announced, after which he plans to establish a buffer zone on his terms. However, he has already declared many deadlines regarding north-east Syria and haven’t yet taken any decisive move. Russia in this context remains uninfluential vis-à-vis Kurdish-held territories as it can’t change neither Kurds nor Americans to push them towards compromise and comprehensive deal.
Third, the three did not come up with an answer to the reconstruction issue. International money and funds won’t start flowing to Syria to help its reconstruction anywhere soon. None of the troika countries is able to provide sufficient funds and economic support to reconstruct the country. Moreover, the US sanctions are still there, Europeans remain reluctant to give money with no strings attached, and Gulf states are still not ready for re-engagement with Syria. As a result, this issue remains unchanged as well.
And lastly, Syrian refugees will not start coming back en-masse due to lack of the progress in improvement of their legal and security status, work, social services, etc. Being one of the main priorities for Turkey and Russia this issue is nowhere close to be resolved.
As a result, Russia, Turkey and Iran still have a lot of issues to sort out in Syria. Behind positive image of agreement and satisfaction with talks there are quite a lot of differences between the three and it is very likely that these differences will continue to grow. On the other hand, existence of such format confirms countries commitment to continue dialog instead of resorting to escalatory rhetoric and actions.