The three key players – Russia, Iran and Turkey – had enough time to set aside their differences at the Tehran Summit. And yet the differences persist. The bottom line is that all three has certain designs on Syria. And, as far as the summit was concerned, the major disagreements were between Turkey and Russia. There was quite an open discussion between Erdogan and Putin, when Erdogan called on Russia to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib, but Putin countered Erdogan by saying that terrorists were present there so they cannot give their word.
Basically, the countries agreed to postpone any major large-scale offensive on Idlib which actually plays into the hands of both Russia and Turkey.
There is no guarantee that all the parties will agree on how to end the war in Syria. So, let’s consider one possible scenario: There will be no political agreement on a military campaign in Idlib. Isn’t it likely to further deepen the conflict in Syria? It’s a quite complicated situation. This is one of the major reasons behind Russia’s agreements with Turkey to postpone the offensive. Currently, Russia needs Turkey on board in Syria to translate military gains into political dividends.
Without Turkey it would be very hard to bear the fruit of all previous efforts. The situation in Idlib is seen by the majority of experts, especially in the West, as a turning point. However, if we look at it from the perspective of long-term Syria reconstruction or restoration, Idlib isn’t that important.
Idlib is important from a logistical point of view because it connects highways from Aleppo to coastal areas and then also toward Homs. But if we look at the eastern Euphrates, it is those territories which will be crucial in the next stages as oil reserves and refineries crucial to Syria’s reconstruction process are contested.
It is safe to say at this particular moment that the Russians and the Iranians are in sync when it comes to the future of Syria. They are speaking the same language.
Syria-watchers note that when it comes to immediate goals such as Idlib or gaining back Syrian territory under Damascus’s control requires being on the same page. But in case of mid-term and long-term goals, Russia and Iran differ. For Russia an excessive Iranian presence in Syria is quite challenging because it puts the Syrian government at risk regardless of whether Assad stays or power is transferred to another. Iran’s excessive presence in Syria would also bother Israel, United States, Europeans, Turkey and all other actors concerned.
It is also important to remember that the Iranian presence in Syria was there before 2011. But the country has increased its military, cultural, economic and humanitarian presence during these seven years of war. As such it is unrealistic to talk about Iran withdrawing from the region. Therefore a major challenge for Moscow is to come to a set of common terms with Iran that could limit the Iranian presence in Syria after the war is over.
Experts are of the opinion that it is a litmus test for Russia and Turkey whether they managed to come to terms on how to deal with Idlib and further with the political process. Once that is settled the sides can look to define further steps. Russia needs Turkey on board because without Turkey’s assistance it would be almost impossible to deal with the Syrian opposition, which has been backed by Ankara since 2014. This is why it is crucial for Moscow to maintain good relations and strike a deal with Turkey.
The bottom line is there is a chance for all parties to come to an agreement. After all, there are a few principles most of the parties involved agree on. The first principle is that we need to have an end to the Syrian Civil War. The country has faced seven years of death and destruction. The sooner Idlib is freed from insurgents, the sooner peace prevails in Syria and the people of Syria are very much in need of peace.
The second point is the humanitarian situation in Idlib. For the last seven years, civilians have been killed indiscriminately in the area.
Staffan de Mistura, the special envoy of the United Nations to Syria, had an interesting solution when he spoke at the UN: to separate the insurgents from the rest of the population. He proposed that the general public in Idlib force the insurgents out.
The third major issue is Syria’s territorial integrity. If all parties can agree on these three principles, many of the problems will be resolved.