Astana troika determined to deepen cooperation in Syria

Astana troika determined to deepen cooperation in Syria

One could clearly read the messages hidden in the photo of the Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders shaking hands when they posed ahead of the Ankara summit for Syria on Wednesday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani in the Turkish capital on the day that coincided with the anniversary of the establishment of NATO. From their facial expressions and body language, it was clear the three leaders wanted to send significant messages to some actors that are uneasy about the deepening cooperation between them.
A few hours before this highly symbolic photo, German Ambassador to Ankara Martin Erdmann made a crucial statement to the Turkish press: “There is no logical place for Turkey’s geopolitical location other than the Euro-Atlantic sphere. Replacing the European Union with Russia or China is nothing but a fantasy, which is not connected to Turkey’s reality.” He also emphasized that he was making this statement the day after the Turkish and Russian leaders laid the ground for Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which will be built by Russians. It is obvious that Ankara finds it more beneficial for its national interests to cooperate with Moscow and Tehran over Syria instead of the US or its European partners. It prefers to buy Russian S-400 air defense systems instead of NATO-interoperable American Patriots. If a NATO country prefers to work with other actors rather than its so-called allies in the most crucial matters related to its security, then EU countries and the US should turn to themselves and ask: “What went wrong?”
Not surprisingly, on the same day, US President Donald Trump, who last week announced that American troops will withdraw from Syria in the near future, changed his rhetoric and said they will stay a little longer. Based on these contradictory statements, it may be hard to determine whether US troops will withdraw or not. However, it seems like the US decision is somehow related to the summit taking place between three leaders who are at odds with the Trump administration.
First of all, the withdrawal from Syria is equivalent to accepting the fact that the US lost. Secondly, it is implying: “We will be leaving Syria, let others deal with the war-torn country.” The US seems to be targeting the Turkish-Russian-Iranian initiative with the aim of breaking the harmony between the troika involved in the Astana peace process. So far, despite having opposing visions regarding the war in Syria, the three countries have managed to find common ground on certain issues and have an interest in building closer ties as the conflict in Syria continues.

The partition of Syria would be of no benefit to these three countries, which may face significant losses in such a scenario

Sinem Cengiz

Needless to say, the withdrawal of the US will serve the interests of the three countries. However, the vacuum created by the US would also lead to a collision of their interests. For Russia, the preservation of its key naval facility at the Syrian port city of Tartus and its air base in Latakia is a priority. Russia does not consider Turkey a threat, but a partner that could control the rebel-held areas close to Russian bases. This could be understood from the Russian approach to Turkey’s Afrin operation. Turkey was able to carry out the campaign because Russia opened up air space there. Meanwhile, Putin’s visit to Turkey was his first trip abroad since being re-elected in March, which shows his foreign policy priorities.
For Turkey, the dismantling of Democratic Union Party (PYD) rule is a priority. While for Iran, ensuring the presence of Bashar Assad rule that could serve its strategies in the region is vital. While Turkey’s advancement in the country may serve Russian interests, the same does not apply to Iran, as the latter does not have a military base to be concerned about. With the recent US announcement, it seems Washington is about to eliminate the common threat (American presence) that unites these three countries. That would be the moment of truth, when the troika will sit a significant exam. In this context, the recent meeting between the leaders is very important.
History is filled with attempts of mediation to end conflicts and, as said by a Turkish diplomat: “The conflict in Syria has proven particularly resistant to mediation. Success might sometimes only be achieved after many failed attempts. There is no single recipe for successful mediation, just as no conflict is the same as another.”
There are several factors that led to the failure of the Syrian peace initiatives of the last seven years and there is no guarantee that the Astana process will succeed.
However, it is obvious that the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are determined to continue until they can achieve a solution that will benefit all parties. After the summit, the most important statement regarded the securing of Syria’s territorial integrity. The partition of Syria would be of no benefit to these three countries, which may face significant losses in such a scenario.
Acknowledging the diversity of interests of Astana’s guarantors, one can argue that the process at least managed to achieve a modest success in the formation of the de-escalation zones inside Syria, the lessening of conflict that serves the national interests of all three countries, and bringing all the parties of the conflict to the negotiating table due to the many ambitions at stake. The success of the Astana peace process will also depend on if the guarantors continue their efforts in an innovative and adaptable way in light of the changing conditions in Syria.
Time will show whether their common interests will drift apart and confronting interests will emerge. But, for the time being, despite the US and the Western powers, the Turkish-Russian-Iranian tripartite is determined to move hand-in-hand and put in place the new picture of Syria.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
Twitter: @SinemCngz
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