In Sochi, a Russian Black Sea port city, the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey met again on Thursday to come up with a comprehensive plan for bringing stability to war-torn Syria.
The three powers have ground forces and bases in Syria and developed the Astana peace process in parallel to the UN-led Ceneva talks in 2017.
At the Sochi meeting, the three leaders coincided on one significant point--the need to deal with 'separatist' groups operating out of Syria.
For Turkey, the assertion of recognising separatist forces as a problem in Syria was a positive development, as the presence of the US-backed YPG, Syrian wing of the PKK terrorist organisation, has been a major bone of contention between Ankara and Washington.
PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US, Turkey and the EU and in its 30-year terror campaign, the group has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control a large territory in the north, equalling almost one-third of Syria. Brushing aside Turkey's security concerns, the US instrumentalised the YPG with the aim of using the armed group in its fight against Daesh.
As the Syrian war opened space for various armed groups to exist, with little to no regard for human rights, Turkey repeatedly demanded that the YPG either remove itself or be removed from the region.
The latest Sochi meeting showed that not only Turkey but also Iran and Russia have been concerned with US designs in northeastern Syria, where the YPG claimed to have established ‘cantons’, or autonomous regions, fuelling fears among the Astana trio that Washington could be working on dividing the region along ethnic lines.
All three leaders, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have emphasised "their solid and ongoing commitment to sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic", in their joint statement, a three-page document with 17 points.
With the US withdrawal on the horizon, the Astana trio has been worried about facing a power vacuum in the region, which could further empower armed groups like the YPG and Daesh, and popularise separatist politics in oil-rich and ethnically diverse territories.
Although they did not name the YPG, their concern about what they referred to as "separatist agendas" strengthened Turkey’s argument against the group.
“[The Astana trio] has expressed their decisive opposition against separatist agendas, which have aimed to weaken both the Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity and national security of neighbouring countries, rejecting all initiatives with aims to create new realities on the [Syrian] ground in the guise of fighting terrorism," the statement said.
Safe zone issue
But there have been conflicting views among the three partners with regards to a safe zone which Turkey is aiming to establish in YPG-controlled territories in northeastern Syria. Ankara argues that a Turkey-friendly zone will ensure its borders are safe from any security threat emanating from terror groups.
“It is our joint view that the [US withdrawal] is a positive move that will help stabilise this part of Syria, where legitimate government control should eventually be restored,” Putin said following the meeting, signaling that the proposed safe zone should be delivered to the Assad regime eventually.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesman also suggested that Turkey should consult with Damascus to form such a zone.
Russia and Iran, which have backed the Syrian regime against opposition forces, have previously indicated that Turkey’s proposed safe zone should be formed in collaboration with the regime.
Turkey fully agrees with the first part of Putin’s statement, referring to the US pull-out decision, which came after a crucial phone call between Erdogan and US President Donald Trump on December 14. Both Iran and Russia have spoken in favour of the US withdrawal from Syria, calling it a "positive step."
However, Turkey is not on board when it comes to Putin advocating for the Syrian regime and encouraging Ankara to negotiate the proposed safe zone with Bashar al Assad. Turkey does not consider Assad a legitimate leader of the country and has supported opposition forces against his regime since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.
Backed by the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, Ankara has also launched two successful military operations against both the YPG and Daesh, capturing significant territory in northwestern Syria with the help of anti-Assad opposition forces.
Washington and Ankara also have disagreements on the nature of the safe zone. While Trump wants to establish a safe zone between Turkey and the YPG, monitored by the US and other European allies in the region, Ankara wants to form a buffer zone lead by its forces.
Recently, the Pentagon indicated it could form an observer force, comprised of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition members, in northeastern Syria to oversee the American withdrawal.
But Ankara suspects that the observer force could be more aimed at protecting the YPG, which previously demanded Washington establish a UN-monitored observation force between the group and Turkish-backed forces.
The Idlib talks
In Idlib province, the last Syrian opposition enclave, there has been a fragile ceasefire mostly thanks to Turkey’s efforts, which have prevented a full-fledged regime assault backed by Russia and Iran. Here, the Astana trio has demonstrated that some disagreements still exist between the three powers.
Turkey, Iran and Russia have reached an agreement to create de-escalation zones in Idlib, establishing observation posts to monitor the ceasefire.
In September, Turkey also blocked a regime attack against the province, populated by three million people, after Erdogan successfully brokered a deal with Putin, preventing another humanitarian crisis.
However, recently, the HTS, a former Al Qaeda affiliate, has claimed much of the province, kicking out other opposition groups and increasing political tensions.
Russia and Iran have been pushing for a military operation against HTS and similar groups to eradicate extremism from the province. After the meeting, they appear to be more vocal for a possible Idlib operation.
The joint statement said: “[The Astana trio has] examined in detail the situation in the Idlib de-escalation area, denounced and expressed serious concern with the attempts of the terrorist organisation ‘Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’ (HTS) to increase its control over the area.”
The group, the statement said: “Agreed to effectively counter these attempts as well as to take concrete steps to reduce violations in the Idlib de-escalation area through full implementation of the agreements on Idlib.”
The statement also emphasised that the three powers will continue cooperation “to ultimately eliminate” the extreme groups from the region.