As US withdrawal plans from Syria remained unclear (and changing), Russia sought to maintain some commonality of purpose among the Astana trio of Russia, Turkey and Iran on the way forward. A summit meeting of the three in Sochi (February 14) resulted in a joint statement, but also revealed their divergent perspectives – the Kremlin website, which normally carries statements and media responses of all leaders interacting with President Putin, carried only President Putin’s statement and responses.
All three countries agree on the need for an early convening of the Syrian Constitutional Committee to set a political process in motion. They agree that conditions should be created for return of Syrian refugees and that international humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people is an urgent imperative. However, the issue of clearing Idlib of “terrorists”, including those who launch periodical attacks on Russian troops in Latakia, and creation of a “safe zone” on the Turkish Syrian border remain contentious issues. Turkey’s insistence on its troops occupying northern Syria on vacation of that area by the US met with strong resistance from both Iran and Russia – the latter offering its military police to patrol the border. Russia separately has been continuing to encourage an accommodation between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad government.
Keeping Turkey on board remains Russia’s main challenge. Energy and economic links with Russia – the Black Sea Turkstream2 gas pipeline, a nuclear power plant with Russian credit, 6 million Russian tourists in Turkey and extensive Turkish business interests in Russia – are important binding factors, but Russia is conscious of Turkey’s global ambitions and its potential strategic value to the US in northern Syria, West Asian politics and in the Black Sea. Turkey’s close relations with Russia have not prevented its agreement to supply armed UAVs to Ukraine, which will significantly enhance the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ capacity to hit the Russian-supported rebel forces (and private Russian mercenaries) in eastern Ukraine.
February 28, 2019