US decision on withdrawal from Syria ‘a positive step’, says Putin

Moscow, Tehran and Ankara find no accord at Sochi summit on defeating Idlib jihadis

Iran’s  Hassan Rouhani,  Russia’s Vladimir Putin  and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan  at a trilateral meeting about Syria in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 14th. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov

Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a trilateral meeting about Syria in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 14th. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov

 

Russia, Iran and Turkey have welcomed the US’s decision to withdraw its troops from northern Syria, but have failed to agree on a plan to deal with the aftermath and efforts to eliminate jihadis in Syria’s Idlib province.

At a summit in the Russian resort of Sochi with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin called the US decision “a positive step”. He and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, said areas held by US-backed Kurds, must be restored to Syrian government control.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reiterated his intention to establish a “safe zone” south of the Turkish-Syrian border in areas held by Kurdish fighters. This would be impossible if contested by Russia and Iran, which have forces in the air and on the ground in Syria.

The objective of their military intervention in the eight-year conflict is to restore Syrian sovereignty. However, Turkish daily Hurriyet reported Erdogan as saying Syria’s territorial integrity would not be preserved unless the border area was cleared of Kurdish fighters.

Role of Kurds

Rouhani said the Kurds must play a key role in the effort to extend sovereignty. They control 25 per cent of Syria and, in spite of US backing, have not cut relations with Damascus. Since last summer, Kurdish and Syrian officials have been negotiating terms for the return of the area to government rule.

Turkey already occupies two enclaves in the north and aims to create a “safe zone” by evicting Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from a 25-30km-wide belt of territory along the eastern border. Erdogan seeks to interpose between the YPG and Turkey’s insurgent Kurds.

Putin urged Erdogan to consult Damascus before conducting further military operations in Syria despite the deep rift caused by Turkey’s support for foreign and local fighters seeking to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Although Erdogan has, reportedly, permitted low-level contacts between Turkish and Syrian intelligence operatives, he has not converted to the Russian and Iranian view that Assad has to remain in power until Syria is stabilised.

While Erdogan has been preoccupied with the Kurds, his army and allied paramilitaries have failed to meet Ankara’s commitments under the ceasefire covering Syria’s northwestern Idlib province agreed with Moscow last September. Although Turkey had pledged to eliminate al-Qaeda’s Tahrir al-Sham, the movement has seized control of Idlib.

Tahrir al-Sham

Excluded as a “terrorist” organisation from the ceasefire, Tahrir al-Sham and its jihadi allies continue attacks on the Syrian army and civilian areas outside Idlib.

Putin expressed impatience with Turkey by calling for the “complete elimination of this hotbed of terrorists”. During the summit, however, he failed to obtain Erdogan’s agreement to conduct a Russian-backed Syrian army operation against the jihadis.

After the meeting, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Pescov, said Russia and Turkey planned to take “unspecified” measures to deal with Tahrir al-Sham, although Rouhani warned its continuing presence could “lead to a permanent problem in the region”.

While the summit did not resolve fundamental differences between Erdogan and his partners, Putin put a positive spin on the outcome. “I am confident that we will be able to give fresh impetus to the normalisation of the situation in Syria, both on the ground and as part of political and diplomatic efforts to establish inter-Syrian dialogue,” he said.

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