Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (C) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) attend a press conference after meeting in Tehran on September 7, 2018
On September 7, Tehran, hosted the latest round of talks between the Iranian, Russian and Turkish presidents within the framework of the “Astana Peace Process” regarding Syria. As it was the case in their previous meetings, all of the three heads of states reaffirmed their joint commitment to some basic issues such as preserving Syria’s unity and territorial integrity, as well as the necessity of continuing the fight against terrorist groups.
However, the Idlib issue which has, during the past several weeks, become a hot topic for debate among the various sides involved in the Syrian crisis, and which has been one of the major points of disagreement between the three Astana partners, continued to overshadow the entire meeting. In fact, the presidents closed their meeting while still having different views on whether a military operation has to be conducted in Idlib province and what exact measures must be adopted in order to relieve all sides that their political, as well as security observations will be respected in any future scenario.
Nonetheless, the disagreements, regardless of how severe or uncompromisable they might be, didn’t prevent the three sides from endorsing the final communique or from agreeing on continuing their collaboration at the highest level. In fact, having a wider look at the content of the summit and the talks, one can argue that currently the sides see more reasons to cooperate than to let the disagreements hinder their trilateral format.
Why not a ceasefire?
The most controversial part of the Tehran Summit was when both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion of adding the word “ceasefire” to the final statement, causing some observers to speculate that the summit actually failed to reach its main objective. Putting aside the fact that the three sides were not expected to reach any deal on a “ceasefire” in Idlib in the first place, the alternative phrase proposed by President Rouhani which was agreed upon by his two counterparts demonstrate that both Iran and Russia recognize and respect Turkey’s security concerns. Rouhani’s suggestion was to request all terrorist groups to lay down their arms and cease fighting.
To better comprehend the connotation of this suggestion, we should see it in line with the main themes of the Astana agreements which have continuously been underlined by all of the parties. From the onset, the two main aims of the Astana format have been to separate the terrorists from the non-terrorists and to continue combating the terrorist groups, especially Daesh (ISIS) and the Nusra Front (currently Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham or HTS terrorist coalition). In this vein, Turkey itself recently recognized HTS as a terrorist groups in order to facilitate the process of separation between the terrorists and the non-terrorists.
This, in fact, means that Ankara is not in principle against fighting terrorism in Idlib, but is concerned that a massive military operation in the area would not only cause a humanitarian catastrophe – given that the terrorists have managed to hide deep inside the civilian areas – but also could impose a new wave of refugees on Turkey that could result in a crisis for Ankara.
In this vein, calling for the terrorists to halt fighting and put aside their arms, technically means giving diplomacy a chance and trying to minimize the casualties of any upcoming operation by integrating as many militant elements as possible into the political process. The top Advisor to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, mentioned this point in a recent interview, proposing measures such as distinguishing between the heads and the members of the armed groups and issuing a general pardon by the Syrian government for those who have not been involved in terrorist activities.
As such, it seems that when it comes to Idlib, a massive military operation, the likes of which unfolded in Aleppo or Eastern Ghouta, is not the case for now. Instead, the Syrian army and its allies are expected to go ahead with a stage-by-stage plan, not abandoning the military option, while trying to reach a series of compromises with those militant groups who are not willing to be recognized as terrorists. Russia previously applied this model in southern Syria and it could be duplicated in Idlib, through a closer cooperation between the Astana partners, each of which has leverage on some fragments of the internal Syrian forces involved in the Idlib issue.
A significant point here is that for both Iran and Russia, abandoning the military option in Idlib is not a viable option and there are valid reasons for this. On the one hand, Tehran and Moscow believe that the more time the terrorist groups in Idlib are given before a military operation, the harder it would become to defeat them, as they could consolidate their positions and even absorb like-minded, though less radical groups into their ranks. On the other hand, both Iran and Russia are concerned that the United States might use any delay to resort to a preemptive move, extending its zone of influence in Syria to Idlib, one way or another. Finally, given Idlib’s vicinity to Russia’s strategic stronghold on the Syrian coasts of the Mediterranean, Moscow is worried that the terrorists might use the area as a base for conducting strikes against the Russian positions in the future.
What will come after Idlib?
While the overall summit in Tehran was dominated by Idlib issues, there were some direct, unprecedented references by the Iranian President to the situation in the eastern Euphrates region, saying that the United States should be pushed out of the area. Rouhani’s suggestion, in fact, comes against the backdrop of an increased level of US activities in eastern Euphrates, especially in Deir ez-Zor, indicating to Washington’s desire to remain in the Syrian territory indefinitely. As such, if we take the Astana agreements as the baseline, it’s obvious that the idea of a unified, sovereign Syria cannot be realized while parts of the country are occupied by US forces, and this is what causes Iran to call for US withdrawal.
Indeed, deepening the perspective on Syria, it could be said that the American presence in Syria is a threat to all of the Astana partners alike and it could well fit into the framework of their cooperation in the future. Although, perhaps for Iran, the US challenge in Syria is more serious, as Washington has clearly declared that currently its main objective in Syria is to counter Iran’s influence. For Russia, not only do the US activities potentially increase the risk of a clash between the Russian and American forces down the road, but they could also pose a direct challenge to Russia’s aim of having the final say in defining the agenda for the political transition in Syria. For Turkey, the threat comes from the fact that in its bid to expand its influence in Syria, the United States has chosen the Kurds as its main ally. This in turn, would lead to a more powerful – and even wider, in terms of geography – Kurdish entity in Syria, to which Ankara has always declared its strong objection.
In this vein, the issue of eastern Euphrates is expected to attract an increased level of coordination among the three Astana partners, but this does not mean that solving a problem of such magnitude is an easy task. In fact, the move would need a more complex strategy of reaching out to the Kurds and pressuring them at the same time and it bears the risk of catastrophic escalation. For now, it seems that Rouhani is just setting the Astana table for the next critical issue and currently everything hinges on the fate of Idlib.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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