Turkey’s Erdogan met with his Russian and Iranian counterparts in Ankara on Wednesday to discuss Syria’s future. They agreed to take steps for more humanitarian aid and reconstruction work, as the war was coming to an end.
“Until Syria finds peace, Turkey cannot find peace.”
Wednesday’s trilateral meeting on Syria was of the utmost importance for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And he vowed "to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG."
Other participants of the summit in Ankara, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Russia’s Vladimir Putin also underlined the importance of "clearing all terror groups of Syria," but Erdogan was the only leader to mention the YPG.
That wasn’t the only difference in opinion between the three leaders, who have been co-operating since late 2016 to find a solution to the Syrian war.
They all supported the territorial integrity of Syria, but unlike its allies, Moscow was considering a federal system. But as the war was coming to an end, the three leaders agreed on starting reconstruction work in the areas they had influence in. Erdogan offered his co-operation in north Syria, Putin on the other hand called on the other countries to help.
Russia and Iran have been supporting the Assad regime in Syria since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Russia now controls the air space in Syria and Iran is effective on the ground in fighting against the opposition groups. Turkey, on the other hand, is one of the biggest supporters of the opposition groups, along with the US.
But after 2015, when the US started arming and training the YPG in Syria, Ankara intensified its co-operation with Iran and Russia. It wanted to find a solution to the crisis in Syria, with a view to respecting the Syria’s territorial integrity and eliminating the YPG, a group which controls nearly a quarter of Syria, with the support of the US.
YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which US and Turkey have designated as a terror group. The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for more than 30 years. Turkey considers a future autonomy for the YPG in Turkey’s borders as a threat to its national security.
Since then, military, diplomatic and intelligence officials from the three countries have been holding meetings in Astana and some progress has been made. They agreed on four de-escalation zones – even though there were some violations – the plan has helped to reduce the clashes. Later, they agreed on setting up a constitutional committee. The regime has to yet disclose its candidates to the UN’s Syria envoy Stepan De Mistura , but the process has started.
During their second meeting in Ankara, they did not declare any new decisions or steps. Their first meeting was on November 22 in Sochi.
Erdogan said that the Astana talks were only complementary to the UN-led Geneva talks “But if you insist on Astana being the alternative to Geneva, we don’t have anything to say. Because we don’t have patience to waste more time.”
Here is what they talked about in Ankara during Wednesday’s summit:
Syria’s territorial integrity
All the leaders said that Syria's territorial integrity and independence was the most important issues for its future.
Turkey’s Erdogan said that territorial integrity could be only maintained by defeating all the terror groups, which were posing a threat to Syria and the neighbouring countries. He then said, “Turkey is fighting against both Daesh and YPG. We don’t accept any separations planned by some other countries, we are denying these operations.”
Iran’s Rouhani also said that the map of the region should not change and Syria’s territorial integrity and independence were of utmost importance.
Russia’s Putin said that all the countries were supporting the idea of Syria's territorial integrity, and were against any ethnic or sectarian divisions in Syria. But Russia had already suggested a draft constitution at a meeting on Syria in January 2017, including a provision on the “autonomy of Kurdish regions.”
A senior Russian diplomat told TRT World that Moscow proposed the draft constitution to see the respective countries' reactions. And Russia still believed a federal system might be possible in Syria’s future, “if the Syrian people agree with that kind of a governing system.”
Putin referred to the UNSC resolution 2401 on the cessation of hostilities and told that thousands of people were rescued from eastern Ghouta.
But Erdogan reacted harshly on eastern Ghouta, but did not blame any one country: “We saw what happened in eastern Ghouta. We saw how they killed innocent babies and children cruelly. To bear with them, you shouldn’t be a human being.”
Humanitarian aid and reconstruction work
The most important progress was made on humanitarian aid. It was also mentioned in the joint statement:
“… called upon the international community, particularly the UN and its humanitarian agencies, to increase its assistance to Syria by sending additional humanitarian aid, facilitating humanitarian mine action, restoring basic infrastructure assets, including social and economic facilities, and preserving historical heritage”.
Erdogan said that Turkey maintains its construction work in northern Syria, in the areas controlled by the Turkish army and the opposition groups, and offered his counterparts, in front of the cameras, help with building secure zones.
“Both in Turkey and north Syria, let’s construct apartments and houses sticking to the local architecture, so that Syrian will live in their homes instead of tent camps.”
Rouhani said that the most satisfying thing in the meeting was their agreement to send more humanitarian aid to the Syrian people.
Putin called on the international community and other countries to support the construction work and humanitarian aid in Syria:
“We can’t provide Syrians a livable environment in the absence of foreign investment. They should step up. Nobody is taking any responsibility other than Turkey, Iran and Russia. There is only a limited humanitarian aid by the UN, but that’s not enough.”
Fight against terror groups
Erdogan reiterated that Turkey’s military operations in Syria would finish only when the YPG was completely defeated. But when the topic of terror groups were brought up, Erdogan was the only one who mentioned the YPG.
Putin was already in Ankara for a bilateral meeting on Tuesday, and in their joint-press conference with Erdogan, Putin was asked about Russia’s stance on the PYD, the YPG’s political wing. This was his answer:
“We [with Turkey] co-operate on the fight against terrorism. Kurdish people has the right to be at every process to decide Syria’s future. We should co-ordinate all these processes. What their place in the future will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Rouhani did not name any groups, but said that terror groups were supported by other countries, and those terrorists had damaged historical areas, meaning Daesh. He also blamed the US and Israel on their support for the “terror groups who tried to topple the rulers in Damascus.”
Erdogan also talked about the next phase of Turkey’s Afrin operation. After the defeat of the YPG from the Afrin city centre, the Turkish military's next target would be Tel Rifaat, on the southeast of the city.
Erdogan said on March 25 that ongoing operation in Afrin would achieve its goal when Tel Rifaat was taken under control. But Russian forces in Afrin withdrew to Tel Rifat in January, where they were still based.
Since then, no military operation has been conducted there. And after the trilateral meeting in Ankara, Erdogan suggested working with Iran and Russia: “We are ready for a joint work with our Russian and Iranian friends to make Tel Rifaat a livable place for our Syrian brothers and sisters.”
Neither Putin nor Rouhani mentioned Tel Rifaat in their comments.
The next meeting by the three leaders is to be held in Tehran in May.