Erdogan, Putin, Rouhani to meet next week on Syria

from left: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Updated 16 November 2017

Erdogan, Putin, Rouhani to meet next week on Syria

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Nov. 22 for the second time in nine days, Turkish broadcaster NTV reported on Thursday.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will also join the talks, on the latest developments in Syria, in the Russian resort city of Sochi.

It will be the seventh time that Erdogan and Putin will have met this year. Their previous one-to-one meeting was held on Nov. 13 for about four hours in Sochi.

According to the Astana agreement brokered in September, Russia, Turkey and Iran are the guarantor countries for the ongoing cease-fire in Syria.

The establishment of “de-escalation zones” and cease-fire monitoring missions have resulted in decreased fighting in northern Syria.

Mete Sohtaoglu, an independent researcher on the Middle East, said he expects another tripartite meeting before the end of the year.

“This tripartite meeting can be seen as a diplomatic move against the military presence and influence of the US in Syria,” Sohtaoglu told Arab News.

“They’re likely to brand the US military as an occupying force, and will ask it to withdraw from the region.”

Sohtaoglu said he expects the guarantor countries to demand that the Syrian Kurds hand areas they control over to Damascus.

“This meeting is also likely to result in the disarming of rebel-held Idlib province in northern Syria via joint diplomatic and military initiatives by Moscow and Ankara,” he said.

“Meanwhile, Iran and Russia will try to disarm the Syrian-Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) in Afrin province.”

Sohtaoglu said what is critical for Ankara is the town of Tal Rifat in Afrin, which is held by the YPG.

Turkey seeks to control arms supplies to the province so as to weaken the militia in northern Syria, he added.

“During the meeting, the trio will also agree on a precise transition calendar for the Assad regime. I assume they’ll tie the end of the regime with elections held under UN supervision,” Sohtaoglu said. Russia and Iran support the Assad regime, while Turkey has backed rebels seeking its ouster.

Dr. Dimitar Bechev, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said the YPG’s fate has been a main reason why Putin and Erdogan have held frequent meetings.

“Erdogan wants to deal with Kurdish-held Afrin. Putin is reluctant to let go of the Syrian Kurds, pressing Ankara to accept their participation in talks on the future of Syria,” Bechev told Arab News.

But he said for a lasting settlement to the conflict, the UN-led Geneva process is still needed, taking into account other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as this week’s US announcement that it will stay in Syria as long as it takes to guarantee a political transition.

In early December, a meeting with about 1,000 participants from various parties to the conflict is expected to be held in Sochi.

Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at Bilgesam, an Istanbul-based think tank, said Ankara seems to have abandoned its initial aim of ousting Bashar Assad.

“Following these two meetings in Sochi, Assad will probably stay in power at least until presidential elections set to be held in 2019,” Semin told Arab News.

“The prime minister will be an opposition figure who is backed by Ankara and is looked upon positively by others,” he said.

“Turkey, Russia and Iran have become power brokers in Syria, while the US aims to use the YPG as a bargaining chip for its regional goals against Russia,” he added. “Washington’s priority now is to strengthen the Syrian-Kurdish presence in northern Syria.”


American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 47 min 29 sec ago

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.