The Presidents of the Astana Group have met in Ankara to discuss further cooperation towards a peaceful settlement to the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who each pledged their support for a non-military solution to the conflict that involves upholding the political unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria.
What was said
Iran’s President Rouhani expressed his support for continued work in the Astana format while criticising “Israel” for its continued support of terrorism in the Syrian Arab Republic. He further warned that the US has a long term goal of seeking the dissolution of Syria but that this will not be allowed.
When asked about recent remarks from Donald Trump indicating his desire to withdraw US troops from Syria, the Iranian President remarked that the US says one thing one day and another thing the next. Therefore Rouhani concluded that such words cannot be trusted but that instead, the US must be judged on its actions on the ground.
Affirming Iran’s continued support to fight all terror groups in Syria until all are neutralised, he thanked his Russian and Turkish partners for their continued cooperation.
The Russian President further affirmed the Astana Group’s commitment to the “sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic”.
Joining his Iranian and Turkish counterparts in taking a swipe at the illegal US presence in Syria, Putin stated that in spite of foreign attempts to undermine Syria by sowing conflicts between segments of Syria society, the Astana process will continue to strive for unity and reconciliation. Putin affirmed that in his view the Syrian National Dialogue Congress is the best method available to achieve this.
Putin said that his country along with Iran and Turkey have almost fully eliminated Daesh and have been working together to rebuild the infrastructure of Syria.
Putin also affirmed that at this point in time, only Russia, Iran and Turkey are helping with the reconstruction process of Syria.
President Erdogan began his remarks by thanking President Putin for Russia’s assistance in building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant which he reiterated will be open by 2023.
In addition to affirming his own country’s commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and unity, Erdogan thanked both Russia and Iran for their mutual assistance in Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, crediting both of his Astana partners with intelligence cooperation which helped to make the anti-YPG/PKK operation in Afrin a success.
Erdogan stated that while no specific date has been set, the next meeting of the Astana group will take place in Tehran.
What it means
While notable differences between the approaches of Russia, Iran and Turkey to the Syrian peace process are apparent, these differences appear as though they’re being diplomatically managed to great effect through the efforts of trilateral communications. At today’s meeting in Ankara, all three countries expressed their dissatisfaction with the counter-productive role the United States continues to play in Syria, although Iran and Turkey were more vocal in their clear opposition to Washington’s role in the conflict. That being said, President Putin’s inferences about the US were clear enough.
Far from being a point of contention among Astana members, it has been clear from the onset that Russia has cooperated with Turkey in respect of Operation Olive Branch and that furthermore, Turkish officials have been openly thankful for Russia’s constructive role in this respect. Today, Erdogan extended his gratitude to Iran, in spite of Tehran publicly taking the side of Syria which is opposed to both Ankara’s Operation and radical Kurdish secessionism. In this sense, Turkey’s role in fighting YPG/PKK terrorists in Syria is fast becoming a ‘west versus east’ issue, rather than an issue which could serve to divide the Astana partnership. The most vocal critics of Turkey at this point in time are not Iran or even Damascus, but the governments of France, Germany “Israel” and the United States.
Overall, the combination of the military aspect of the conflict inevitably winding down as more and more areas of Syria are back under government control, combined with the increasingly dysfunctional and universally (with the exception of “Israel”) unpopular US presence in Syria, means that it is almost certain that the Astana partnership will represent the most important external force in the eventual political settlement of the conflict, one that will necessarily exclude any damage to the legitimate government in Damascus.