The leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia, the guarantor countries trying to broker peace in Syria, will meet just before the new round of Geneva talks. The timing is significant, as Syria is again boiling over, developments on the outskirts of Damascus are making matters worse and rebel groups are threatening the ceasefires reached in the de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria.
At the beginning of the month, after Astana talks that were attended for the first time by Saudi representatives, the Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran to meet Iranian and Azerbaijani leaders, with the Syrian issue on the table. The Syrian opposition will meet in Riyadh on Nov. 22 as Saudi Arabia tries to unify them under one umbrella. At the same time, Russia, Iran and Turkey will discuss the peace process, apparently choosing a strategy for different scenarios depending on the success or failure of the Geneva talks, and will discuss the possible outcomes of the Syrian National Dialogue Conference next month organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Some perceive this conference as an attempt to foil the UN Geneva talks, but that is what they once said about Astana — which was, and remains, an instrument for making Geneva more effective. The conference is intended to launch an indispensable reconciliation dialogue to proceed in tandem with political dialogue and the post-war political process.
The meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents on Nov. 22 in Sochi will touch upon the latest developments in Syria and the Middle East. It is particularly important taking into account tensions with the US. Ankara has threatened possible attacks on US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey’s ties with NATO are becoming more hostile than ever.
Washington is trying to revise the Iran nuclear deal and restore sanctions against Tehran, so Iran is openly inviting Moscow to form a coalition to counter the US. Iran’s activities in the region are anathema to the Gulf states, the US and Israel, while Moscow, Ankara and the Assad regime view its participation as vital.
The summit in Sochi has to be seen in the context of the Dialogue Congress 10 days later; timing that suggests Putin wants to draw united positions from Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani to declare the end of the war in Syria.
The three countries’ coordination on Syria has increased since 2016, although Ankara’s position on the Assad regime differs from Moscow’s. Putin and Erdogan discussed the Syrian crisis in Sochi on Nov. 13, when they announced that relations between them were fully restored. Later, Ankara announced the purchase of Russia’s sophisticated S400 missile defense system.
There is a clear mutual understanding about a political solution in Syria, and on other related issues, but Russia and Turkey appear to prefer to keep the details secret. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that during the talks the parties will discuss the possibility of the expansion of de-escalation zones in Syria, which is indispensable for peace.
Some years ago, the West and regional allies were insisting that Bashar Assad should go and the political process had to start before Daesh could be destroyed. Now it is clear that any political process goes hand in hand with national reconciliation and the launch of post-war restoration, without necessarily clearing Syria of every terrorist cluster.
Moscow, which has changed the course of the Syrian conflict since it intervened militarily in September 2015, has given a series of signals that it is continuing to craft a political solution. The agenda of the Sochi Dialogue Conference is the political future of Syria after transformations in which the opposition lost large parts of its control, and Daesh is on the verge of defeat. A Syrian national unity government may be proposed, but the most important topics are the constitutional reforms and parliamentary and presidential elections.
As for the Syrians themselves, they have little hope that the conflict will be settled any time soon. Some fighting groups have transformed into criminal gangs sucking blood and money from the miserable people living in territory they control, and profiting from the continuing war — which explains why they are trying to break the ceasefires. The international community, notably the West, is ignoring many issues, playing with facts to serve their own agendas and hiding behind noble statements. There is pessimism, but also a clear understanding that most of the foreign players are not interested in conflict resolution. Kicking the “annoying players” — Russia, Turkey and Iran — out of Syria would clearly serve their national interests, but not the peace settlement goals. However, there is still hope that the next Geneva talks will be more successful than the previous rounds and give hope for other initiatives to be successful as well. Syria needs peace.
Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme