Iranian-backed militias stand on a tank close to the Syria-Iraq border.
(photo credit: ALAA AL-MARJANI/REUTERS)
The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia gathered at Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast at the end of last week to discuss the situation in Syria in the latest of several high-profile gatherings of these countries to seek a way to end the conflict and to increase their coordination on regional issues.
This direct challenge to US power in the Middle East was scheduled to coincide with the US-led meeting in Warsaw that included calls by Washington to challenge Iran.
The official statement from Sochi included a 17-point statement released on Friday. The three powers discussed developments since their last meeting in Tehran on September 7. They sought to “strengthen the trilateral coordination” in light of their agreements about Syria. Unsurprisingly they emphasized the importance of the “sovereignty” of Syria, and its “territorial integrity,” code words that has were meant to challenge the US role in eastern Syria.
The three countries “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism, and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”
This is interesting because Turkey launched a military operation into Afrin in Syria in January 2018 and has been working to back a group of Syrian rebels and opposition groups.
However, the statement ignored Turkey’s role and was aimed at the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed mostly Kurdish forces that have been fighting ISIS in eastern Syria. In December, Turkey claimed that ISIS was defeated and appeared to assert that the US was in Syria only under a pretext of fighting ISIS but actually supporting a separatist Kurdish agenda. The US decided to withdraw from Syria in mid-December.
The three powers took into account the US withdrawal and claimed it would help “strengthen stability and security” in Syria. This was a jibe at Washington because the US has said it supports stabilization efforts in eastern Syria.
The statement also expressed concern with the “attempts of the terrorist organization Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to increase control over the area, and agreed to effectively counter these attempts.”
This is a reference to the recent growth of HTS as it clashed with several groups in Idlib province in northwest Syria and drove those groups out of Idlib, cementing its control. Under a September agreement between Russia and Turkey, Ankara was supposed to rein in some of these groups along a buffer zone and force them to withdraw their heavy weapons.
It is not clear the degree to which Turkey has met these agreements with Russia. But Moscow doesn’t want to antagonize Turkey, and has remained silent on violations. Oddly, the statement mentioned the “Al-Nusra front” and “Al-Qaeda,” whereas many analysts say that HTS, Al-Qaeda and the Nusra front are in reality the same group in Syria. By mentioning them all separately, it gives Turkey and Russia more flexibility in interpreting the agreement to combat these “terrorist” groups one at a time.
The other parts of the statement claimed that the conflict could only be resolved through a UN-backed process, an argument that Americans have also made in asserting there is no military solution in Syria. The three powers seek to push forward a constitutional committee that has been formed in Geneva.
The next meeting of Turkey, Iran and Russia on Syria will take place at Astana, Kazakhstan, in April.
The statements that came out of the Sochi meeting tend towards the Orwellian. Iran, for instance, accused the US of “backing the terrorists based in Iraq and Syria” and using them to support “illegal activities” in Syria. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted that Tehran had “reports” that the US was supporting ISIS.
Iran has long claimed that the US supports terrorism, while Washington accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and instability across
the region. Iran seeks to pressure Iraq to force US forces to leave Iraq.
Similarly, Turkey has accused the US of working with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Syria and supporting terrorists. Russian media, such as Sputnik, has accused the US of aiding ISIS.
All of this is designed to turn on its head the US campaign against ISIS and US claims that Washington is supporting stability in eastern Syria. Last year, Russia accused the US of leaving Raqqa, a city liberated from ISIS in 2017, devastated and creating conditions that could give the rise to new terrorist infiltration.
Overall the meeting in Sochi shows the increasing bond among Turkey, Iran and Russia, each of which openly opposes US policy in the region and globally.
For instance, Turkey has been a backer of the Venezuela regime that the US has been seeking to pressure. Turkey is ostensibly a US and NATO ally, but its work with Russia and Iran shows it wants a foot in both camps.
The Syria issue has unified these countries in the last year, rather than drive a wedge between them.
Nevertheless, there are major challenges ahead in Idlib and in eastern Syria. Turkey will be pressured to sort out the problems in Idlib if Russia continues to say that terrorists are present there. Similarly it may be difficult for Russia to manage the crises in eastern Syria if the US withdraws too quickly.
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