This article was published in Arab News on April 29, 2018.
Astana trio’s fundamental differences a barrier to progress
The Moscow meeting of the foreign ministers of the three Astana process countries — Russia, Turkey and Iran — on Saturday turned the attention back to what these three countries are doing to end the conflict in Syria. Three summits between the same countries in the last six months had already startled the Euro-Atlantic community. French president Emmanuel Macron was the first leader to voice his unease, telling Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the Sochi/Astana process cannot be an alternative to the UN-backed Geneva process.
In the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Firas Shoufi reported on April 6 that Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked that his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad be invited to participate in the trilateral summit that was held on April 4 in Ankara, but that he had declined “for a number of reasons.” This news was confirmed neither by Ankara nor Moscow, but it is plausible.
Many observers in Turkey, including officials close to the decision-makers, admit that Ankara has made several mistakes in Syria and that it has to correct them. There are also claims in the Turkish media that second track channels are being used to talk to the Syrian regime. If this rumor turns out to be true, the conclusion we have to draw from Assad’s response to Putin is that it will take some time for Damascus to forget the hardship caused by Turkey’s Syria policy.
Notwithstanding Putin’s attempt to invite Assad, the trilateral summit has the advantage of being a local initiative. It brings together three countries directly involved in the Syrian crisis. However, this does not guarantee that they can solve all the complex problems arising from the crisis.
There are two sets of challenges. First is the involvement of major powers such as the US, UK and France. The US is interested in the region as part of its global policy, France and the UK as part of their colonial past. They will do their best to shape the evolution of the situation in the region in line with their interests, but their priorities may not always match those of the regional countries. The efforts of the Astana trio may hit difficulties stemming from this difference.
Astana trio’s cooperation may become bogged down if the parties stick to their rigid positions on Syria.
Second, there are major differences among the three countries in their approach to the solution of the Syrian crisis. Russia and Iran both support the Syrian regime, but the type of governance they have in mind is not the same. Russia disclosed its choice by proposing a constitution that provides for a federal structure, but Iran may not like it because the emergence of a Kurdish federate may set an example for the Iranian Kurds. Russia has a military presence in Syria, while Iran has a similar presence through the Hezbollah fighters. The presence of one will constrain the presence of the other.
Turkey’s approach to the Syrian crisis is different from that of both Russia and Iran. Aside from its desire to remove Assad from power, Turkey’s opposition to the creation of a Kurdish zone in the north of Syria is much stronger than that of Iran. While Iran may acquiesce to the creation of a Kurdish zone as long as the Kurds do not impede its communications with Lebanon and its reach to the Mediterranean, Turkey is opposed to the emergence of any type of Kurdish formation in the region.
Two new difficulties surfaced after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced his expectations of the Moscow meeting. He said Russia remains committed to the recommendations of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi in January, but his statement hardly dissimulates the fundamental difference between Turkey’s approach and that of Russia and Iran.
One difficulty is Lavrov’s statement that Ankara and Tehran could help the Syrian government “clean the country of terrorists.” Turkey helping the Assad regime under the present conditions is almost inconceivable. Second is Lavrov’s criticism of the missile attack carried out by the US, UK and France in retaliation for the reported chemical attack on Douma. Turkey had supported the US-UK-France attack more diligently than necessary.
As efforts toward a political solution progress in Syria, these conflicting approaches will come on to the agenda one after another and the trio’s cooperation may become bogged down if the parties stick to their positions.
Despite this, there is a huge potential for cooperation in the region if we go beyond the minute intricacies of the Syrian crisis. Cooperation between Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and all other Middle Eastern countries has several complementarities. They have educated elites, skilled labor and natural resources, but what is missing is the political will. If this will could be promoted, the region has the potential to recover its historical role of again being “the cradle of civilization.”