Judging by spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin’s statement (spokesman for the president of Turkey), a regular Russia-Iran-Turkey summit in the Astana format will take place in Ankara in August.It is becoming increasingly obvious that conditions for holding the forum are not just ripe but also make it an urgent necessity. It is particularly significant that the meeting was initiated by Turkey. Despite Western skepticism, it is the Astana format that has proven to be the most productive in settling the Syrian conflict.
The Geneva meetings are also important if only because of the success in gathering the majority of parties to the conflict at the negotiating table, as well as the regional and global forces involved in it directly or otherwise. Yet, although the Geneva process is ongoing, it has not produced any specific results.
As distinct from Geneva, Astana has produced this kind of result. First and foremost, apart from Russia, Iran and Turkey have taken an active part in it from the very start. These are two regional powers that are directly involved in the conflict but on opposite sides. This made it possible to include the conflict’s main domestic forces in the negotiating process – both the government and the armed opposition (albeit without the Kurds). Any terrorist groups were excluded from the process. This was one of the main foundations of the Astana consensus and allowed the allied forces of Syria, Russia and Iran to concentrate on attacking the terrorists. The elimination of ISIS as a systemic entity is also a result of Astana.
The second major result was the creation of the four de-escalation zones in the regions of Syria where the effort to separate the armed opposition from the terrorists failed. This process was continued directly within these zones. Three of the four zones were completely freed from terrorist groups, while the armed opposition forces (if with a considerable inclusion of terrorist elements) landed in Idlib Province for the most part.
As a result (and this is Astana’s third result), over 75 percent of Syria’s territory, which includes most of the population, was consolidated under the control of the Syrian Government by the end of the summer in 2018. This prevented a split in the country.
At the same time, there are still many outstanding issues related to a quarter of Syria’s territory that remains outside the control of the Government. The largest and most important part is in the northwest of the country, which is controlled jointly by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force units and the US-headed international coalition. This aspect of the Syrian conflict was excluded from the Astana process due to the US reluctance to take part in it and also to Turkey’s refusal to include the Kurds in any negotiating format.
The issue of Idlib is second in importance but first in urgency. This is a small area covering two-thirds of Idlib Province and small stretches of the provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo. This is the fourth de-escalation zone that has turned into a kind of dumping ground for the radical armed opposition and terrorist units. The population of this zone has increased three times to 3.5 million people, while the number of militants fluctuates between 30,000 and 50,000.
According to the trilateral (Russia-Iran-Turkey) agreements, there is a de-escalation corridor along the zone’s perimeter, which is jointly policed by forces contributed by Russia, Turkey and Iran. Any conflicting Syrian parties and their heavy weapons need to be removed from this corridor.
However, these agreements are not being carried out. The armed opposition and terrorist forces are not only still in this corridor but they continue to shell the adjacent territories. Formally, Turkey is responsible for this area. However, the Syrian Government, not without Russia’s convincing influence, has tolerated Turkey’s delay in fulfilling its commitment to remove these groups for some time now. As for Russia, its position is explained by the realization that Turkey has found it difficult to fulfil its commitment due to the lack of complete control over the situation.
However, after Hayat Tahrir al-Sham units, controlled by the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, gained a victory over the Turkish-controlled units of the armed opposition and began to fully dominate the zone of Idlib, the situation has become intolerable. In response to the continuous shelling of adjacent territories, Syrian army units, supported by the Russian Aerospace Forces, launched an attack against the terrorists.
Several clashes between Syrian and Turkish armed units have taken place for the first time. The Iranian forces and the Hezbollah units deployed in Aleppo Province are also running out of patience.
Thus, the situation needs to be resolved. Understandably, Turkey is concerned that a strike by the Syrian army at Idlib could trigger a new wave of emigration (as many as 3 million people) into Turkish territory. Moreover, Erdogan’s party that positions itself as a leading force in the international association, the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot stop patronizing similar forces in Syria (which are the backbone of the armed opposition) without a loss of face. But a continuation of this situation is likewise intolerable for the Syrian Government and its allies. A new summit in the Astana format is supposed to resolve these problems.