Can Putin’s Syria peace plea reconcile Tehran and Ankara?

ANKARA: Russian President Vladimir Putin has urged his counterparts in Turkey and Iran to encourage peaceful dialogue between rival forces in Syria in a bid to end the country’s bitter 9-year war.

Speaking during a televised video conference with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani on July 1, the Russian leader said: “An inclusive inter-Syrian dialogue should be actively promoted within the framework of the constitutional committee in Geneva. I propose to support this process, to help the participants to meet and start a direct dialogue.”

To what extent the three countries can agree on genuine political transition remains unclear, however, especially with Ankara and Tehran supporting vastly different regional agendas.

But Galip Dalay, a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, believes one thing is certain: In Idlib, the so-called “Astana three” have effectively become the “Astana two,” with Ankara and Moscow excluding Iran.

“This, in turn, gives Iran added motivation to undermine any Turkish-Russian deal,” he told Arab News.

“While both Iran and Turkish interests are aligned when it comes to opposing the territorial disintegration of Syria and a larger US role, their priorities conflict almost on everything else,” he said.

“They can try to keep a conflict management process on track, but the divergence between them is only getting larger.”

Russia and Iran have been the main supporters of President Bashar Assad’s regime, while Turkey backs the opposition. The three countries began cooperating to reduce the fighting in Syria as part of a diplomatic process dating back to 2017.

Bedir Mulla Reshid, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that Iran and Turkey have been in indirect confrontation on Syria since the civil war began.

“Turkey has supported the Syrian political and military opposition, both in the face of the Assad regime and the sectarian militias sent to Syria by Iran. As for Iran, from the first day it stood beside Assad regime, and is one of the two main parties that refused to allow the regime to fall,” he told Arab News.  

During the televised video conference, Rouhani again pledged his country’s support for the “legal government of Bashar Assad.”

The next trilateral meeting between the guarantor countries is expected to be held in Iran, but a date has yet to be specified.

Meanwhile, a third round of Syrian constitutional committee talks overseen by the UN are set to be held next month.

The 150-member committee, which was launched in Geneva on October 2019, includes Syrian government and opposition leaders, as well as civic representatives.

Ankara has stopped the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which it considers a terror group, from taking part in the Geneva talks.

According to Reshid, Iran hopes to strengthen its influence in Syria through its military militias and relief institutions.

Joe Macaron, a Middle East foreign policy analyst at the Washington-based Arab Center, said that regional dynamics, especially the US Caesar Act sanctions on Syria, “make it difficult to imagine a path forward to reach a political settlement.”

The Caesar Act entered into force on June 17, 2020, with sanctions targeting the Syrian government for war crimes.

“Idlib remains a contentious issue between Turkey and Russia, while competition continues between Moscow and Washington in northeast Syria,” Macaron told Arab News.

He said that the rival countries “seem to be interested in buying time to consolidate their influence” and are not ready to resolve the conflict under the current terms.

However, the Syrian regime’s willingness to implement a political transition by giving concessions is also open to doubt.

“Damascus blocked the political process and tried to disrupt committee meetings in Geneva,” Anton Mardasov, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute’s Syria program, told Arab News.

“This whole process is a fiction, which Russia is trying to demonstrate under the guise of a real compromise,” he added.

Mardasov believes that a compromise solution is unlikely in a short term, with presidential elections due in Syria and Iran in 2021.

“Moscow is trying to return to the idea of ​​a transitional government. The main focus of the negotiations between Turkey and Russia seems to be about the eastern part of Syria. Moscow is likely to approve Ankara’s operations to put pressure on the Kurds again,” he said.

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