On September 16, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted his Iranian and Russian counterparts Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin in Ankara for a new round of Syria talks within the framework of the Astana Peace Process.
As was expected, the situation in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, and the return of the Syrian refugees were among the main issues discussed by the three presidents. Besides, Iran was successful in bringing the issue of American and Israeli moves in Syria to the forefront of the summit’s agenda, gaining support from its two Astana partners in addressing what appears to be its main concern in Syria.
The positions taken by the three heads of states, as well as the joint statement issued after the summit, suggest that the three sides have been able to leave behind their disagreements on one of the most pressing issues regarding Syria, namely the constitutional committee. Although no exact date was announced for the launch of the committee, both Putin and Erdogan emphasized that the list of the committee members has been finalized and the process of drafting a new constitution for Syria will begin very soon.
However, when it comes to the other major challenge currently facing Syria, namely the situation in Idlib, differences still persist between Tehran and Moscow on the one hand and Ankara on the other. While the Syrian government’s two major allies continue to support the Syrian government’s military campaign in Idlib within the context of fighting terrorism, Ankara expresses concern that the campaign would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in the region, exposing Turkey to a new wave of Syrian refugees.
In fact, the final statement calls for trilateral cooperation in fighting the terrorist groups in Idlib, while taking steps to protect the civilians in the area. However, the most probable scenario for that part of Syria is the continuation of the Russian-backed military campaign of the Assad government, which will result in the gradual return of the whole province to the control of Damascus.
Except for these two major issues, the latest summit was different from the four previous ones in two important aspects. In the over two years since the establishment of the Astana format, the talks between the three guarantor states of the Syrian ceasefire were mostly restricted to stabilizing the situation on the ground, as well as de-escalating efforts aimed at reducing the violence. The latest summit, however, covered a wide range of issues, from the constitutional committee to the return of refugees and Syria’s reconstruction. This means that the Astana format is in a process of consolidation and expansion to a new set of issue-areas.
Meanwhile, in the final statement of the summit, several references have been made to the need for cooperation between the Astana partners and various United Nations agencies, especially on humanitarian issues. Besides, it has been clearly stated that the constitutional committee will be launched in Geneva, in coordination with the UN. These points are clear proofs that, unlike some early speculations, the Astana format is not going to introduce itself as a separate initiative, but tries to enhance its legitimacy by working in line with the UN principles.
As such, it seems that despite their differences on a number of issues, the three Astana partners still view this format as a functional framework, which can help them preserve their basic interests in Syria while avoiding unnecessary clashes or conflicts.