This article was published in Arab News on February 18, 2019.
Sochi summit keeps Syrian peace process alive
Russian president Vladimir Putin last week hosted another summit on Syria in Sochi with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani. Three subjects seem to have dominated this latest summit of the guarantors of the Astana/Sochi process: Idlib, the northeast of Syria and the constitutional process.
On Idlib, Russia continued to show understanding for Turkey’s failure to persuade the armed opposition to lay down their arms despite Erdogan’s genuine efforts to find a non-military solution to the province’s problems and avoid an attack on the armed opposition. Nonetheless, a growing weariness is also visible on both the Russian and Iranian sides. Iran is clearly in favor of ousting the fighters of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) from the province, notwithstanding Turkey’s position. Turkey and Russia agreed to carry out joint patrols in Idlib — this will bring Turkey’s approach closer to that of Russia and help reduce reciprocal misgivings.
The toning down of Erdogan’s address gave the impression that Turkey has finally come to the conclusion that something has to be done to deal with the HTS reality in Idlib. In other words, goodwill is there, but there is no tangible progress in the Idlib case.
Erdogan said during the press conference after the summit: “We will continue to do whatever is incumbent on us according to the Idlib accord. I conveyed to my counterparts our expectation for the regime’s abidance by the cease-fire.” This means Turkey wants the Syrian government to stop attacking the armed opposition in Idlib, but it does not say what will happen if the HTS does not leave the province of its own volition.
There was also no tangible progress on the subject of the northeast of Syria and the setting up of a safe zone. Erdogan used more determined language on this subject, saying: “The safe zone that is being planned should not become an area where terrorist gangs will flourish. I want to be clear that we will not allow a terrorist corridor to emerge along our southern border. On this subject, we are looking forward to the support of our Astana partners.”
Will this support come? Yes and no. Rouhani said that the sovereignty of Syria had to be respected. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, was more explicit, saying: “The Syrian government’s consent has to be obtained for the setting up of a safe zone in the north of the country.” Meanwhile, Putin said in the press conference: “The main task is to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity. This is valid both for Idlib and the east of the Euphrates.”
The toning down of Erdogan’s address gave the impression that Turkey has finally come to the conclusion that something has to be done to deal with the HTS reality in Idlib.
The tone in Erdogan’s statement was lowered on this subject too. He did not repeat his insistence on a safe zone to be patrolled by the Turkish army. This softening in Turkey’s approach was echoed by its Astana partners in the joint communique, issued after the summit, which read: “(The leaders) discussed the situation in the northeast of Syria and, while respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, decided to cooperate and coordinate their activities for the safety, security and stability of the region, including the cooperation within the framework of the existing agreements.”
Two points have to be underlined in this paragraph of the joint communique: One is the reference to cooperation among the partners, which is to say joint action among the partners rather than a unilateral action by Turkey. The other is the reference to the “existing agreements.” The agreements referred to here are the Adana Agreement of 1998 and Ankara Agreement of 2011 between Turkey and Syria. The Adana Agreement was raised by Putin during the press conference after the bilateral summit between the Turkish and Russian leaders on Jan. 23 in Moscow. These agreements, signed before the breaking out of the Syrian crisis, provided for cooperation between the two countries to fight terrorism. So there is a repeated reference here to the need for cooperation between Ankara and Damascus. Russia is consistently encouraging Turkey to cooperate with the Syrian government, but Erdogan has not yet given up his practice of referring to the Syrian president as “murderer.”
The constitutional process was another important subject taken up during the summit. One hundred members of the 150-strong constitutional committee have already been designated, 50 of them by the government and the other 50 by the opposition. The last group of 50, which was allocated to civil society groups, will play a determinant role since the other two groups will probably vote en masse in favor of the group they represent. Erdogan complained about the slowness of the process but said he was hopeful that a balanced constitutional committee will be set up.
The three leaders may not have achieved any concrete results, but they succeeded in keeping the process alive.