What to Expect from the Talks between Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani?
Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Erdogan have a meeting in Sochi today. The main issues on the agenda are the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, the situation in Idlib and in the east of the Euphrates. Each of the three players - Russia, Turkey and Iran - has controversial issues. Are the participants of the "Astana trio" ready for a compromise?
Three powers are returning from where they started last fall. The last meeting of Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Erdogan, held on September 7 in Tehran, not only did not lead to the result, but resulted in a skirmish. Rouhani’s desire to launch a military operation against the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition in the province of Idlib, which Putin supported, angered Erdogan. By mistake, the host of the summit of the Iranian side, this part of the broadcast was in free access, and the differences between Iran and Russia with Turkey appeared in full glory.
Since then, some variables have changed. Ten days later, Putin separately with Erdogan, without Rouhani, in Sochi agreed to create a demilitarization zone in Idlib 20 km wide. In fact, Putin decided to restrain the “hawkish” ambitions of Iran, which intends to force Bashar Assad to return the entire territory of Syria, and take a pause so as not to ruin the alliance with Turkey. According to the Sochi deal, Ankara needed to take care of the withdrawal of all heavy weapons and terrorists from the demilitarization zone. However, Turkey has not yet managed its task. Moreover, the terrorists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham intensified in the provinces and killed the pro-Turkish groups of the National Liberation Front and Hurras ad-Din. Terrorists control, according to various sources, from 65 to 80 percent of the territory of Idlib. This state of affairs is increasingly convincing Moscow that it is necessary to deal with the terrorists themselves, without Turkey - what the Iranians are proposing.
The second event that makes adjustments to tomorrow's meeting is the fact that the United States has announced its departure from Syria. The forces of the Kurdish National Self-Defense Forces (YPG) located behind the Euphrates fear that after the withdrawal of the US troops, Turkey will go on the offensive. Erdogan almost daily repeats that today, not so, tomorrow Turkish special forces will enter Manbij. In addition, Ankara plans to create a “security zone” beyond the euphrates 30 km wide. Concerned about the growing risk of a Turkish offensive, the Kurds began negotiations with Damascus. In December, they agreed to transfer control over Manbidge to the Syrian army. In the west of the city is already located the Russian police. In parallel, Damascus through Moscow is trying to establish contact with Arab tribes in Rakka and Manbij. Just as in Idlib, outside the Euphrates, the positions of Iran and Russia coincide and consist in the transfer of these regions to Assad. Turkey intends to independently deal with the YPG in north-eastern Syria, and then, under its strict supervision, transfer this territory to the Arab opposition. Moscow and Tehran see this as an attempt to occupy the Syrian land by Ankara.
Differences between Russia and Iran
Despite the coincidence of the positions of the “hawk” of Iran and “moderate” Russia, there are even problems between them. After the latest rocket attacks on Israel in Syria, under which pro-Iranian militia were killed, Iran began to accuse Russia of having C-400 and C-300 in the region, allowing Israel to bomb the Iranians and allegedly give the IDF their coordinates. Tehran is also annoyed by Moscow’s attempts to bring Arab countries into the Syrian settlement - Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Egypt. The latter have already begun to recognize Bashar al-Assad as the legal representative of Syria and may participate in the restoration of the state destroyed by the war.
Contrary to Russia's dissatisfaction with the “mess” in Idlib, which Turkey is not able to cope with, and the desire of Ankara to expand its influence in Syria, the alliance with Erdogan at this stage also has its advantages. It allows Moscow to balance the strengthening of Iranian influence in Syria, which in the future could be dangerous for Russia itself. Secondly, playing the "Turkish card" is useful in order to work together to speed up the withdrawal of the United States. Despite statements by pressure from militarists from the Pentagon John Bolton, Israel and France, Trump slowed down the evacuation of troops. The existence of disagreements between the United States and Turkey and joint Russian-Turkish projects (Akkuyu NPP, sales of C-400, Turkish Stream) still justify imitating Putin-Erdogan allied relations.
"Weak link" and a possible compromise
Turkey will not give up trying to take Manbij. Erdogan still believes that Assad should withdraw from this area, and Iran and Russia should not oppose this. The Turks will try in every way to convince Iran to give up Assad’s control over Manbij. There are contradictions between Russia and Iran over Israel. Iranians continue to insist that they should be close to Damascus, the Golan Heights and the territories bordering Israel. Russia does not agree with this, because it has its own agreements with Israel.
The biggest problem in the tripartite contradictions lies in the position of the United States and the West, which do not abandon attempts to split the “Astana format”.
Apparently, for tomorrow's meeting, Putin, Erdogan and Rouhani will come with rather big baggage of contradictions. Russia has always played the role of mediator in this trio. Probably, Putin will be able to find a “middle ground” for Erdogan and Rouhani. How exactly it will look, we learn after tomorrow’s talks. Perhaps Russia will give Turkey one more, but the last postponement in creating a demilitarization zone. This “respite” will not only turn away from Idlib a military operation that threatens Turkey with a refugee crisis, but will give the Kurds time to swear allegiance to Assad, until Erdogan turned to decisive action.