Forget White Helmets: This Year’s Oscar Goes to Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani

The Presidents and Foreign Ministers of the Russian Federation, Republic of Turkey and Islamic Republic of Iran have just concluded an Astana Format meeting in Tehran aiming to determine the status of the Syrian Governorate of Idlib while also emphasising the need to end the military phrase of the conflict in Syria which has raged since 2011.

The day’s events started out with a public round table meeting between the three presidents who each read prepared statements before entering into a seemingly spontaneous debate during which each side tended to emphasise their disagreements regarding the status of Idlib in what has been described as incredibly frank exchanges that are normally reserved for closed door meetings.

After several hours, the three Presidents emerged and spoke at a press conference after having reached a final agreement which has been enshrined in the Tehran Declaration of 2018.

While the Russian, Turkey and Iran are all close partners in 2018, their disagreements over the penultimate solution to the Syrian conflict have been highlighted by the media outlets of all three nations while perhaps oddly, their areas of agreement tend to be downplayed. The reason for this is simple: the areas where the three leaders disagree play well before each respective domestic electorate as well as to each state’s traditional allies within Syria and the wider Middle East.

Below is the full video of the round-table “debate”

However, when it comes to what will actually be done in Syria as a result of the increasingly frequent meetings between the Astana Group, the areas where all three countries agree is vastly more significant. This reality has been born out by the text of the final Tehran Declaration which as I predicted calls for the targeting of unanimously recognised terror groups (Daesh, al-Qaeda/al-Nusra/HTS), the prevention of further escalation against other armed groups, an orderly plan to protect civilians in Idlib as well as regional refuges and a broad understanding that there will be no grand all encompassing offensive in Idlib by the Syrian Arab Army and its traditional partners. Instead, all three states will cooperate to de-escalate the overall situation while neutralising groups that all three states agree are terror organisations.

To illustrate the schism between the overarching political theatre surrounding discussions on Idlib, I recently wrote the following regarding the schism between what all interesting international parties say about Syria in 2018 versus what they mean:

What the USA says: “The Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. We are not afraid to stand up to Russia for helping to prop up a savage dictator“.

What the USA means: We’ve already acknowledged that Assad isn’t going anywhere and we are privately grateful to be working with Russia in order to support our mutual Israeli ally. However to create a bit of leverage for future negotiations and to get Bob Woodward’s book out of the headlines we might fire some missiles at non-targets in Syria and shout ‘mission accomplished’ afterwards”.

What Russia says: “All terrorists in Idlib must be neutralised and Syria’s sovereignty must be respected by all nations.“.

What Russia means: “We seek to minimise any fighting in Idlib as much as possible by working with our Astana partners (Turkey and Iran) to evacuate as many civilians as possible from limited areas of danger. Furthermore, we will not allow the Syrian and Turkish armies to fight one another in any way shape or form and privately hope for long term Turko-Syrian reconciliation of one kind or another. This is understood  by all of our partners including and especially in Damascus. The US cannot meaningfully change the realities of the conflict which Russia has made clear it wants to wind down and begin a negotiated political process. We resent any illegal missile strike on Syria but we know that the US would not be so stupid as to hit any targets near anything remotely Russia. As for Israeli strikes on alleged Iranian targets, we have never intervened in this and will not do so”.

What Iran says: “We shall fight along with our Syrian brothers until the end and the Resistance shall triumph no matter what the American devil says or does.“.

What Iran means: “Now that Daesh is largely defeated and our economy is in grave danger we cannot afford to alienate our Russian or Turkish partners at a time when both have stood by us far more meaningfully than Europe. Thus, we will not allow anything to happen in Idlib that goes against the interests of our Russian and Turkish partners much though it pains us that things have reached such a stage“.

What Turkey says: “Any military attack on Idlib is totally unacceptable and we are in full agreement with the United States on the importance of this issue“.

What Turkey means: “While we do not want to see military operations in our de-escalation zones in Idlib or anywhere that Turkey has invested its resources in Syrian territory, we will work closely with our Russian partners to make sure that whatever operations are conducted are reasonable by our estimation. Unless Iran does something totally unexpected, we realise that Iran and Turkey are important economic partners in spite of compartmentalised disagreements over Syria. Until the US ends its economic war against us, stops funding the YPG/PKK and stops sheltering Gulen, we’re not going to be the ‘old Turkey’ in America’s eyes“.

What Israel says: “We shall not hesitate to defend our interests against aggressive Iranian terrorism hosted by the Assad regime”.

What Israel means: “We are happy that our US and Russian friends have agreed to help us and while we’ll still probably occasionally strike Syria with a big wink and even bigger nod from the US, it won’t amount to much in terms of changing the realities on the ground just as it has not in the past“.

With this in mind it helps to contrast what was said at the round table “debate” this morning in Tehran versus what was agreed upon in the final Tehran Declaration and what was said during the generally cordial post-agreement press conference. Below is the full English language version of the Tehran Declaration. Crucial areas have been highlighted for emphasis:

“Joint Statement by the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the President of the Russian Federation and the President of the Republic of Turkey

Tehran, 7 September 2018

President of the Islamic Republic of Iran H.E. Hassan Rouhani, President of the Russian Federation H.E. Vladimir Putin and President of the Republic of Turkey H.E. Recep Tayyip Erdogan gathered in Tehran on 7 September 2018 for a Tripartite Summit.

The Presidents:

1. Expressed their satisfaction with the achievements of the Astana format since January 2017, in particular, the progress made in reducing violence across the Syrian Arab Republic and contributing to peace, security and stability in the country.

2. Emphasized their strong and continued commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as well as to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and highlighted that they should be respected by all. They reiterated that no actions, no matter by whom they were undertaken, should undermine these principles. They rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism and expressed their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries. 

3. Discussed the current situation on the ground, took stock of the developments regarding the Syrian Arab Republic following their last meeting in Ankara on 4 April 2018 and agreed to continue trilateral coordination in accordance with their agreements. In this regard, they took up the situation in Idlib de-escalation area and decided to address it in line with the above-mentioned principles and the spirit of cooperation that characterized the Astana format.  

4. Reaffirmed their determination to continue cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate DAESH/ISIL, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL, as they have been designated as terrorists by the UN Security Council. They underlined that, in the fight against terrorism, separation between the above-mentioned terrorist groups and the armed opposition groups that had joined or would join the ceasefire regime, would be of utmost importance including with respect to preventing civilian casualties.

5. Reaffirmed their conviction that there could be no military solution to the Syrian conflict and that it could only end through a negotiated political process. They reaffirmed their determination to continue active cooperation with a view to advancing the political process in consistence with the decisions of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi and the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

6. Reaffirmed their resolve to continue joint efforts aimed at advancing the Syrian led and Syrian-owned process for reaching a political settlement and reiterated their commitment to help establish and launch the work of the Constitutional Committee. They expressed their satisfaction with the useful consultations between their senior officials and the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria. 

7. Emphasized the need to support all efforts to help all Syrians restore their normal and peaceful life and to alleviate their sufferings. In this regard, they called upon the international community, particularly the United Nations and its humanitarian agencies, to increase their assistance to Syria by providing additional humanitarian aid, facilitating humanitarian mine action, restoring basic infrastructure assets, including social and economic facilities, and preserving historical heritage.

8. Reaffirmed their determination to continue joint efforts aimed at protecting civilians and improving the humanitarian situation via facilitating rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all Syrians in need.

9. Highlighted the need to create conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their original places of residence in Syria. To this end, they emphasized the necessity of coordination among all relevant parties, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other specialized international agencies. They agreed to consider the idea of convening an international conference on Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).

10. Welcomed the progress of the work of the Working Group on the release of detainees/abductees and handover of the bodies as well as the identification of the missing persons, as undertaken with the participation of the UN and ICRC experts.

11.  Decided to hold their next meeting in the Russian Federation upon the invitation of the President of the Russian Federation H.E. Vladimir Putin.

12.  The Presidents of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey expressed their sincere gratitude to the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran H.E. Hassan Rouhani for hosting the Tripartite Summit in Tehran”.

In this sense, while Turkey did not get the blanket ceasefire that President Erdogan proposed, nor did Iran or for that matter Syria secure an agreement for a full-scale offensive that tends to be favoured by both the Iranian and Syria side. Thus, the compromise on Idlib where by Turkey will join Russia and Iran in fighting certain terrorist groups while other armed groups will be protected has taken place as expected. Furthermore, President Erdogan has stated that Turkey will help to evacuate militants from areas of Idlib within striking distance of the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia which is used by the Russian Aerospace Forces.

Furthermore, in unilaterally condemning separatism, given that President Erdogan expressed his dissatisfaction with the US arming and funding of the separatist YPG/PKK terror group in north-eastern Syria, it can be surmised that Russia and Iran have come to support Turkey’s view on this matter of vital importance to both Turkey’s security and in the long term to Syria’s territorial integrity. In this sense, Russia and Iran have joined NATO member Turkey in offering a robust opposition to the clear US desire to permanently occupy north-eastern Syria under the guise of forming a separatist radical Kurdish entity – a second Israel in all but name.

In many ways, the Iranian and Russian commitment to fight all forms of separatism in Syria which in reality means YPG/PKK separatism was the most groundbreaking development that was achieved during the Tehran summit. Previously, Iran had been largely silent on YPG/PKK aggression due to a more or less admittedly failed strategy of trying to “win over” rather than fight the Iran based branch of the PKK –  the terror group PJAK.

Meanwhile, Russia had previously stayed rather silent on the matter. Today this has largely changed while Turkish geopolitical expert Yusuf Erim has suggested that seeing as Russia and Iran have signed a document clearly condemning radical Kurdish separatism, this could pave the way for the eventual Ankara-Damascus rapprochement that Russia has long been keen to establish as in the long term the YPG/PKK threat is as dangerous for Syrian Arabs and Syrian Turkmen as it is for Turks in the Republic of Turkey.

The reality is that north-eastern Syria is far more strategic for Damascus than Idlib. This is the case because while parts of Idlib will not so easily be reconciled back to Damascus due to the mutual good will between civilians in parts of Idlib and Turkey, areas east of the River Euphrates are largely comprised of pro-Damascus Arab populations who have suffered greatly under US-YPG/PKK occupation. Perhaps most importantly, because Syria’s oil reserves are largely located East of the Euphrates, Damascus is clearly keen to recover this territory as would any nation.

In totality, the Presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran gave their supporters the kind of political theatre they have been waiting for, but the matter of Idlib has been resolved through a compromise that is neither radical nor surprising. Most importantly, while some small disagreements will linger between Russia, Turkey and Iran regarding Idlib – the three most vital foreign powers helping to shape the Syrian peace process have largely agreed to robustly oppose any US backed YPG/PKK separatism in Syria’s north-east.

In this sense, even if the US and its White Helmet allies stage a “chemical weapons” provocation in Idlib as Russia has publicly said it expects them to do, the political theatre in Tehran is the real false flag because it disguises near unanimity by cloaking it in robust yet polite disagreement. In this sense, the Astana Group have beaten the United States and its European partners at their own game.


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