On Friday, the heads of state of Iran, Russia and Turkey will convene in Tehran for a trilateral summit. This trio will set up the judicial mechanism of the Astana process that will shape Syria’s future.
As with past meetings, I have no doubt that on Friday Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Tayyip Erdoğan will provide plenty of smile-filled photographs and will probably once more join hands and give the message to the wide world, “Look, we are as thick as thieves.”
But, you, too, know that this appearance does not fully reflect reality.
Why? The leaders of these three countries are not on the same page over either Syria’s future or the approaching Idlib operation. Russia’s aim in commencing the Astana process was to legitimise the Assad regime’s sovereignty over Syria and prevent the USA from spreading in Syria. Bringing Turkey to its side was a huge strategic gain for Russia. For its part, Iran wanted to legitimise its presence in Syria and break the US siege against it on the political plane.
And Turkey? Turkey has been “forced” into the Astana process, not because it thinks along Russian and Iranian lines over Syria’s future, but because its relations with the USA have become very fragile. It said, “Yes” to certain decisions that it was not very keen on so as to reduce the area under the Syrian Kurds’ domination and to enable it to conduct the Afrin operation. We all know that the reason for Ankara’s inclusion in this line-up is not to immediately reinforce the Assad regime’s presence in Syria, and Turkey’s aim is to narrow the field of play for the alliance between Washington and the YPG, tell the US, “Look, we have other alternatives,” and take its place all the more strongly at the table that will subsequently be set up.
Even if at the point currently reached these three countries pass a joint resolution on Syria’s future, this is far from a cosy partnership.
Let us now turn to the Idlib issue. It is true that since the start of the war jihadist groups have dominated Idlib. However, at the same time, some three million people are living there who fled from various places in Syria and came to Idlib. That these people have for some time lived under the Al-Qaeda derivative Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) does not alter the fact that they are of flesh and blood like us.
As things stand, it is understandable that Turkey is worried about both a fresh wave of migration towards its borders and a bloody operation in Idlib in which civilians will be among the casualties. For, the Syrian regime’s past operations have been fairly bloody. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also expressly stated, Iran and Russia view this region as being an “infected abscess that must be destroyed” and are intent on flattening it come what may.
For Turkey, this is pretty much a “lousy” situation from both a humanitarian and logistic aspect. Ankara’s endeavours until now to persuade HTS and the other radicals has achieved partial success. The remainder want to fight.
So, what needs to be done?
It is a tough situation. What needs to happen in Syria is what is known in diplomacy as a “grand bargain,” that is a final agreement in which the USA and Russia are at the same table.
It is impossible to solve a single component of the Syrian equation, which has turned into a complex puzzle. There is no scenario for neatly wrapping up just the Idlib business. We are faced with a bundle of interconnected, involved problems.
I do not know what will happen. But, what should happen, by turn, is Turkey resolving its problem with the USA, the USA and Russia coming to agreement over the constitutional process on Syria’s future, the emerging of a shared vision from talks between the YPG and the regime and, following a logical arranging of the areas under Turkey’s and the YPG’s control in the north of Syria, the creation of a sustainable structure.
Should any one of these not happen, the Syria problem, with all its seriousness, will not fall off our radar screen.