The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey held a trilateral summit in Tehran on September 7 to discuss the latest developments in Syria and coordinate their efforts in finding a political solution to the Syrian Crisis. The summit came at a critical juncture of war in Syria, as the Syrian government, with the support of its allies Russia and Iran, is preparing for liberating the last major rebel-held region of the country, i.e. the northwestern province of Idlib.
Meanwhile, Ankara, which, according to the previous agreements within the framework of “Astana Process” has been responsible with guaranteeing ceasefire in one of the four “de-escalations zones” in Idlib, has been opposing any military move by the Syrian army in the area, saying that such a move would lead to a “human catastrophe” that could negatively impact Turkey which shares a border with this Syrian province.
In fact, Ankara’s concern over the current situation in Idlib is mostly related to the fact that Turkey is now hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees and any major escalation in Syria could result in a new wave of refugees fleeing to Turkey, whom Ankara has barely the capacity to host, especially given the ongoing economic crisis caused by the US pressures. On the other hand and at the geopolitical level, Turkey is well aware that recapturing Idlib by Assad government would mean the last nail on the coffin of the Turkish-backed rebel groups operating in the area. This in turn, could to a great extent limit Ankara’s desired zone of influence in northern Syria.
However, the Tehran summit showed that although Iran and Russia try not to alienate Turkey and to take into account its security considerations, they are not about to revoke their plans for supporting the Syrian government in recapturing Idlib. The fact that both Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin rejected the proposal of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to include the word “ceasefire” in the final statement of the summit clearly represented this issue. At the same time, it showed that given the current situation in Syria, where Assad government has the upper hand against the rebels, Ankara is in no position to pressure Tehran and Moscow toward accepting its own viewpoint.
As a result, it seems that Turkey has now in principle complied with the Russian and Iranian viewpoint on the inevitability of resorting to the military option in order to fight the terrorist groups in Idlib; but at the same time, the other two parties will try to ease Ankara’s concerns by devising measures for minimizing the human costs of the upcoming operation.
In this vein, now the Astana partners are expected to work on three main measures in order to prevent a much-feared “human catastrophe” in Idlib: First, speeding up the process of separating between the terrorist groups and the moderate opposition; Second, trying to reach a series of agreements with the non-terrorist armed opposition to hand over their weapons and reach compromise with Damascus; and third, negotiating with the Syrian government to provide the opposition with some incentives to accept the compromise. The incentives would include measures such as declaring general pardon for those members of the opposition who have not been involved in terrorist activities.
While at the current situation, Turkey bears the main burden of accomplishing the first task, Russia can use its past experiences to reach out to the opposition and mediate a compromise between them and Damascus – as it successfully did during the Syrian army’s recent campaign in the south. Meanwhile, both Tehran and Moscow can use their leverage on Assad to fulfill the third task.
Considering the abovementioned points, it seems that as a result of the Tehran summit, the Syrian army and its allies will use a more cautious approach regarding the military operation in Idlib, but this does not mean that the actual military campaign is now off the table. Indeed, the most probable scenario currently is a stage-by-stage military operation and the simultaneous use of force and diplomacy in order to provide the opposition with a real chance for survive, while not abandoning the fight against terrorist groups, which has always been a main element of the Astana framework.
Finally, it worth mentioning that thanks to the US pressures against Iran, Russia and Turkey alike, the Astana Process that was initially aimed at finding a solution to the Syrian Crisis, seems to be in a process of developing to the other areas of cooperation between the three countries. This was especially visible at the bilateral meetings between the heads of states present in Tehran, where issues such as conducting trade interactions on national currencies as well as other forms of economic cooperation were discussed. Although it’s still too soon to judge whether the Astana framework is taking an overwhelmingly anti-American posture, it has the potential of becoming a new driving force for more cooperation between the three sides.