At a time of increasing tensions in the Middle East and the imminent danger of war, it was a salutary reminder of how diplomacy can and should work as seen from the successful summit held this week in Ankara between the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran on promoting a lasting peace settlement in Syria.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted his Russian and Iranian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani for the fifth summit of the Astana trilateral format dedicated to bringing about an end to the nearly nine-year war in Syria. The first such summit was held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi in November 2017. A lot has been achieved in the intervening two years in terms of stabilizing Syria and bringing the political framework forward. It is still a work in progress with the three leaders due to meet next in Tehran for their sixth summit.
Russia’s Putin was evidently the central figure at the summit this week, holding bilateral meetings with his counterparts from Turkey and Iran before the trio went on to engage in full negotiations.
Balancing those two countries with respect demonstrates how Russia has come to be seen as a trusted interlocutor in the precarious region.
A joint communique was issued which underscored the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria; the need for implementing a lasting ceasefire in the northwestern province of Idlib; and the return of millions of refugees, both from outside Syria and regarding internally displaced people.
The three leaders committed to setting up a “constitutional committee” comprising the Syrian government, political opposition and civic society groups. The composition of the committee has been agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran and it is due to start the process of writing a new constitution for Syria, with the Astana format acting as guarantors in coordination with the United Nations.
Putin emphasized that the political process would be determined solely by Syrian people free from any constraints imposed by external powers.
The Russian president commented: “We all stand for Syria’s territorial integrity and insist that once problems of security and counter-terrorism are resolved, Syria’s territorial integrity will be fully restored. It concerns the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Syria’s territory too.”
He added that “self-governing areas” sponsored by foreign powers are not permissible. This was clearly a rebuke to Washington’s attempts to carve up Syria with its sponsorship of Kurdish separatists to set up an autonomous mini-state within Syria.
Putin reminded that “US troops are illegally present on Syrian territory” and that they must withdraw from the country. A proposal to withdraw American forces last year by President Donald Trump has not seen any progress towards that stated objective. It is long overdue to be implemented. Further delay is inexcusable.
The outcome of the Astana process is a vindication of Russia’s staunch support for Syria’s sovereignty. While Western powers and also Turkey had long-called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stand down, the summit this week is a confirmation of Moscow’s (and Tehran’s) principled defense of Syria’s right to national self-determination.
While Russia and Iran have both stood firm in their defense of Syria’s sovereignty over the years, Turkey’s role in the Syrian war has been one of baleful interference from its support for anti-government militant groups. Some of those groups backed by Turkey are known to have links to internationally proscribed terrorist networks.
At one point in the Ankara summit, Putin made a veiled criticism of Turkey’s ambiguous role. The Russian leader noted how jihadist terror groups had increased their aggression from bases in Idlib over the past year despite an earlier deal between Moscow and Ankara to establish demilitarized zones.
It is therefore incumbent on Turkey to implement its stated commitment to demilitarized zones and – like the Americans – to eventually withdraw its troops from northern Syria in respect of the nation’s territorial integrity.
In an apparent jibe at the United States and its support for Kurdish militants, Erdogan said, “it is unacceptable to support terrorist organizations under the guise of fighting terrorists.” The same words could ironically be applied to Turkey over its covert relationship with jihadi groups.
Russia, Turkey and Iran have certainly held opposing views on the war in Syria. However, it is to be welcomed that despite past differences, the trio are publicly committed to working towards a lasting political settlement in Syria, one which respects the authority of the government in Damascus. The process of dialogue, diplomacy and political engagement is the only way forward to secure Syria’s stability.
Not just for Syria’s stability but for the region as a whole. Russia can take huge credit for forging this process and bringing conflicting sides together. That being said, however, the summit in Ankara agreed that the Syrian state forces still maintain the right to eradicate terror groups which are proscribed by the United Nations Security Council. Those groups include all Al Qaeda-affiliated militants.
There are good grounds to welcome the expansion of the Astana format to help resolve other conflicts in the region. Lebanon and Iraq are to join the process as observer nations of the Astana process. Russia’s trusted role as an interlocutor could see the process being applied to bring an end to the war in Yemen. It may also be applied to help structure a peace process in Afghanistan, or to de-escalate tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Russia could perhaps constructively fill the void in resolving the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One thing seems sure though: the United States has forfeited its role as a self-declared mediator in the war-torn region. Washington seems only capable of inciting tensions, launching wars and prolonging enmities. Its art of diplomacy is redundant, and has been for many years. It seems to only know the black arts of subterfuge, intrigue and chaos. Even so-called allies no longer trust Washington.
By contrast, Russia has the growing stature of a genuine mediating player. It has the kudos of principled intervention from among nations of very polarized positions, from Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, to Syria and Iran. Moscow is ideally suited to play an even bigger role in bringing about detente and progress in the tumultuous, blighted region.
One final amusing note is this: we should note how Russia’s evident conciliatory relations are contrasted with the caricature presented in Western media which portrays Moscow and Vladimir Putin as a malign actor. To any objective observer, Russia’s role is commendably bringing about peaceful results through its diligent diplomacy and consistent adherence to principles of sovereignty and respect for international law. Western media’s caricature of Russia should actually be applied to the United States, in which case it would not be a caricature, but rather an accurate condemnation.