Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders vow to protect Syria′s territorial integrity | News | DW | 04.04.2018
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Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders vow to protect Syria's territorial integrity

The leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia have held a summit in Ankara to draw up plans to end the Syrian civil war. The three sides are cooperating despite backing different sides in the conflict.

The presidents of Iran, Turkey and Russia met on Wednesday vowing to protect Syria's territorial integrity as the three countries deepen cooperation to end the seven-year civil war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted his Russian and Iranian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani at the presidential palace in Ankara in the second tri-lateral Syria summit after a previous one was held in Sochi, Russia, in November.

Turkey has been one of the main backers of Syrian rebels, while Iran and Russia have supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. 

Astana peace process 

However, the three countries launched a series of talks dubbed the Astana peace process early last year to try to open humanitarian aid access and establish "deconfliction" zones. The three players in Syria say the process is designed to support parallel UN talks in Geneva.

The deconfliction zones have reduced violence in some areas, while in others such as eastern Ghouta devolved into a regime offensive that has nearly retaken all of the Damascus suburb from rebel hands.

Read more: Putin, Erdogan launch Turkey's first nuclear power plant

Syrian forces: Most of eastern Ghouta has been retaken

The Syrian civil war has created more than five million refugees and left six million internally displaced and more than 400,000 people dead.  

Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told DW the lead-up to the summits had galvanized movement on issues inside Syria. "But the summits mostly seem like photo-ops to announce agreements that have already been worked out to further carve up a Syrian state that all three have convinced themselves they are working to keep together," he said.

US withdrawal in preparation?

The Ankara summit was held as US President Donald Trump signaled that Washington may be preparing to withdraw from Syria, where it backs a mixed Kurdish and Arab force under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against the "Islamic State" (IS). 

Read moreOpinion: A US pullback from Syria is a terrible idea

A hasty US withdrawal would undermine the fight against IS and leave space for Turkey, Iran and Russia to expand their zones of control.

Turkey has carved out a zone of control in northern Syria and threatened to expand military operations against the SDF, potentially putting the United States and its NATO ally on a collision course.

A two-month offensive by the Turkish military and its rebel allies on the Kurdish-held enclave Afrin ended last month after Russia reportedly approved the operation by opening up Syrian airspace. 

Turkish soldiers in a military vehicle in Afrin by a damaged Kurdish statue

Turkish soldiers in a military vehicle in Afrin by a damaged Kurdish statue

Read more: US, Turkey on collision course in Syria's Manbij

Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin: What you need to know

Syrian Kurdish YPG militia

In Ankara, Erdogan sought to gain Iranian and Russian support against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the SDF that Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization.

"We share the same concerns with our Russian friends on many key issues in Syria. We believe that the future of Syria is too important to be abandoned to pre-designed terrorist organizations" such as IS and the YPG, Erdogan said.  "To this end, we will continue our cooperation, focusing on our mutual interests."

Kerim Has, a lecturer at Moscow State University, told DW that Russia and Iran likely told Turkey "to take a breather" after the Afrin operation and threats to expand military operations against the SDF east of the Euphrates. 

"We have been seeing that Ankara has been insisting on conducting operations for months. However after a meeting, in which Syria’s territorial integrity [was] emphasized so much, I don’t expect Ankara to get a green light neither from Moscow nor from Tehran, at least in the short-term. Ankara will have to postpone these intentions for now," he said. 

Damage from air strikes in Idlib province

Damage from air strikes in Idlib province

Idlib province - a rebel stronghold

One potential hotspot that could make or break Turkish, Russian and Iranian cooperation is in Idlib province, a rebel stronghold in the northwest that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to take back.

Idlib is largely controlled by the al-Qaeda linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and a smattering of Turkish-backed rebel factions. The Turkish military has also set up a string of observation posts in the province.

A regime offensive supported by Russia and Iran-backed forces could potentially send hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians in Idlib pouring across the Turkish border.

Ankara is seeking to prevent this and return some of the three million refugees in Turkey back to areas under its control in northern Syria, where it has established local governance structures and provided humanitarian support.

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