Leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia discuss crisis in Idlib

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (AP)
Updated 17 September 2019

Leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia discuss crisis in Idlib

  • Ankara concerned over steady advance of Assad’s forces into Idlib region

ANKARA: The leaders of Turkey, Iran and Russia gathered in Ankara on Monday for the fifth trilateral summit on the Syrian conflict since 2017. 

The Astana guarantor countries discussed the developments and peace settlement in Syria, with the last opposition-held bastion of Idlib, safe zone creation, the formation of the Syrian constitutional committee and the mass influx of refugees from Idlib toward Turkey as key topics. 

“Turkey, Russia, Iran will carry the fight against terror to another level by eliminating terrorists in Syria east of Euphrates River,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during the joint press conference. 

About 2,000 militants from extremist factions, including Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, have illegally fled the Idlib and Hama governorates for Turkey since early May with European countries as the final destination, the Syrian publication Al-Watan recently claimed. 

While Tehran and Moscow have been firm supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Ankara mainly prefers his removal from the post and backed opposition groups. 

Having 12 observation posts in the rebel-controlled enclave Idlib to implement a buffer zone, Turkey is concerned by the months-long advance of regime forces into the region with the aerial support of Moscow, and by the possible security risks such an advance has posed to its posts. 

However, “security problems in northeastern Syria should be solved on the basis of protecting Syria’s territorial integrity,” Russia’s Putin said during the press conference. 

Turkish President Erdogan recently threatened to open the doors to Europe for Syrian refugees if his country’s plans to implement a safe zone in northeastern Syria were not supported. 

Max Hoffman, Turkey expert and associate director of national security and international policy at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said that Turkey’s core interests and goals were at odds with those of the Assad regime and, to a lesser extent, Iran.  

“Ankara wants to stop the regime’s offensive in Idlib to prevent further flows of refugees into their country, while Assad wants to eventually re-conquer all the areas controlled by rebels,” he told Arab News. “In the long-term, Turkey wants to maintain a zone of control within Syria to allow for the resettlement of large numbers of refugees, which Erdogan rightly views as a domestic political liability. Damascus views this as non-starter, and Iran is not happy about the prospect either.” 

According to Hoffman, Turkey believes that only a political process to transition away from Assad’s rule will end the fighting, while Assad obviously rejects that premise.  

“Russia and the Assad regime have already proven repeatedly that cease-fires and political agreements are not worth the paper they’re written on, while Turkey will have increasing difficulties controlling its rebel proxies as it proves itself unable to prevent their destruction in Idlib. Therefore, the stakes are quite high for both sides — particularly for Turkey, which faces strategic humiliation and potentially millions more refugees — but there are no grounds for fundamental agreement,” he said. 

During the joint press conference, Iran’s Rouhani emphasized the 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria, saying that it could help to address the concerns of all parties. The counter-terror agreement was referenced before by Putin as well as a sign to encourage both sides to cooperate in Syria. 

In a strategic rhetorical shift a day before the summit, Syria’s Foreign Ministry declared the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia-led Syrian Democratic Forces as “separatist terrorist militias” in a letter to the UN secretary-general — “a sign of readiness to cooperate with Turkey in eastern Syria” according to some experts.

Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group, said that Turkey views the Astana and Sochi agreements primarily as a means to stop the violence while preserving a “de-escalation area” in northwest Syria under opposition control.

“While Russia during the meeting would want to focus on the constitutional committee, Ankara would be more inclined to discuss the Russian-backed military offensive in Idlib. Accordingly, Turkey agreed that “radical terrorist groups” should be removed from a 15-20 km “demilitarized zone” and on the broader need to combat terrorism,” she told Arab News. 

However, Khalifa said, Ankara remains at odds with Moscow on defining “terrorist groups” operating in Idlib. 

“Unless this disagreement over the definition of terrorist groups is addressed, any subsequent cease-fire will likely prove fleeting, and might jeopardize talks between Moscow and Ankara over other Syria-related issues including the formation of the constitutional committee,” she said.


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 13 min 19 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.