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Putin, Erdogan, Rouhani talk Syria in Sochi

February 14, 2019

Russia's Vladimir Putin has put forward measures to bring the devastating war to a close with the help of Turkey and Iran. Despite renewed peace efforts, a political solution to the eight-year conflict remains elusive.

Russian President Vladimir (middle) gestures with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by his side
Image: Reuters/S. Chirikov

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged his Turkish and Iranian counterparts to work together to bring the Syrian conflict to end during a trilateral summit on Thursday. One of the first measures would be to together eliminate jihadists from Syria's Idlib province, he said.

"It's necessary to agree about ensuring the definitive de-escalation in Idlib," Putin said while meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

While the ceasefire in the province is holding, "this does not mean that we need to accept the presence of terrorist factions in the Idlib region," the Russian president added. "That is why I suggest considering concrete practical steps, which Russia, Turkey, and Iran can take to completely destroy the terrorist strongholds."

'Ruled by terrorists'

In September, Putin and Erdogan brokered a cease-fire to create a demilitarized buffer zone in the region. However, a faction previously known as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front has since established dominance in the area, with Russia describing Idlib as a "terrorist nest."

Putin's comments were backed by Rouhani, who said it would be wrong to let Nusra fighters off the hook just because they had changed their name. After the meeting, Erdogan said that safe zones in Syria "should not be left to be ruled by terrorists." Turkey last year created outposts in Idlib to prevent an escalation in the region.

Read more: What do the US, Russia, Turkey want from the Syria conflict?

Russia, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has grown increasingly impatient about the presence of militants in Idlib.

"Ankara promised Russia that Turkey would push out armed opposition forces from Idlib, but it could not keep its word," Turkish expert Burak Bilgehan Özpetek told DW.

"We will do all we can to help the Syrian government and its armed forces to solve the problem of liberating their territory," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday.

Iran also provides significant support to the Assad regime, while Turkey is allied with various opposition groups trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Read more: Rebuilding Assad's Syria: Who should foot the bill?

Syria's new constitution

Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani also discussed a special committee that would be tasked with drafting Syria's next constitution. Previously, the UN had admitted it was unable to create such committee as Damascus objected to the list of the proposed members.

"Diplomats from our countries, in coordination with interested parties in Syria and the UN put serious work into creating the Constitutional Committee," Putin said in Sochi. "It is important for the committee to start working as soon as possible.

Putin also said there was "sabotage" of the project from outside.

Ahead of the meeting, Russia's top diplomat Lavrov said that Iran, Turkey, and Russia had already presented their own list, but Western countries had "thrown spanners in the works of UN officials, in order to prevent the authorization of the list." Moscow was "ready to search for a solution for this situation," he added.

Read more: US warns Turkey against targeting Kurds in Syria

Turkey's turning point?

The Sochi meeting marks the fourth time leaders of Iran, Russia, and Turkey have met in this format since 2017. The so-called Astana talks involving the three powers have overshadowed efforts by the UN to end the eight-year conflict.

But efforts to end the conflict have stalled with Turkey pushing for a safe zone in northern Syrian. Ankara has accused Syrian Kurdish militias operating near its border of maintaining links with the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey.

Washington in December announced the withdrawal of 2,000 US troops from Syria, but warned Turkey against attacking Kurds in the area. Shortly afterward, US President Donald Trump threatened to "devastate Turkey economically" if it attacked Kurds in Syria. For Iran, the players must strike a balance between the US withdrawal, protecting Syrian Kurds and maintaining Turkish security.

"If Turkey remains at odds with the US over the buffer zone, we will be able to observe Turkey getting even closer to Russia," Kerim Has, formerly with the University of Moscow, told DW's Turkish department. "Maybe Sochi will pose a turning point for Turkey's Syria policy. The situation keeps getting more tangled, but time is running out for Ankara."

Read more: Russia encroaches on US war industry in Middle East

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ls, dj/rt (AFP, Interfax, dpa)