Syria summit confronts quagmire of interests

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Syria summit confronts quagmire of interests

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and members of the delegations attend a trilateral meeting on Syria in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. (AFP/ Turkish Presidency Press Office)

Last week saw two international meetings on the future of the Middle East. One was in Warsaw and focused on Iran and the nuclear deal. It was sponsored by the US and attended by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with senior government officials from 60 countries. 

The other was a summit on Syria - hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin - that was attended by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

In Warsaw, the US impressed very strongly on the Europeans that they adhere to US sanctions. Pence criticized the UK, France and Germany for a non-dollar denominated payment channel to enable trade with Iran and urged all European nations to terminate the nuclear deal. 

While the European members of the UN Security Council and Germany acknowledge that Iran has undue influence in many parts of the Middle East, they feel that dialogue rather than isolation may help them exert more pressure on Iran. 

There were differences of opinion at the other conference too. The Russians criticized Turkey for not aggressively eliminating terrorists in Idlib. The Turks were worried about increased warfare on their borders. 

Turkey is proposing a humanitarian zone along its borders. Russia says Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad needs to approve such a zone. 

Here is exactly where the problem with Syria lies. Everybody is chasing different irreconcilable objectives.

Cornelia Meyer

Ankara is not talking to Assad and Erdogan is said to be going ahead with his “safe zone” despite Russian, Iranian and Syrian pushback.

Here is where the problem with Syria lies. Everybody is chasing different and irreconcilable objectives.

The region as a whole does not know what to make of President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw its troops from Syria and subsequent statements from senior US officials that a withdrawal was not imminent. The only ones rejoicing at a smaller US footprint are Russia, Iran and Assad.

Assad looks set to stay in power. Alas, many observe that the last chapter may not yet be written there either. But some Arab states are dealing with the status quo. 

The UAE has opened an embassy in Damascus. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir has paid a state visit. Jordan has opened a border crossing and some in the Arab League want to discuss readmitting Syria into the fold.

Irrespective of the regime, Syria needs major reconstruction efforts. Putin visited German Chancellor Angela Merkel last summer to try and drum up support for the rebuilding because Russia lacks the wherewithal to go it alone.

But it will be hard to rebuild Syria as long as it remains a pariah state and nobody is able to untangle the mess of divergent interests. In the meantime, it is ordinary Syrians who suffer.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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