Turkish, Russian and Iranian diplomats will meet in Antalya on Sunday in the run-up to a major get-together in Sochi on November 22. The meeting is supposed to focus on Syria, but its real purpose is part of a larger effort by Moscow to illustrate its influence in the region.
Moscow, Turkey and Iran are all sending symbolic messages to Washington that the Americans are out in the cold and the post-ISIS era may well be dictated by regional powers.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the meeting was intended to find out “how we can restore stability and peace in Syria.”
According to Hurriyet Daily News, the foreign ministers from Moscow, Ankara and Tehran will meet in Antalya, followed a few days later by a meeting in Sochi between Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani that is being billed as a “trilateral summit.”
Turkish officials, this year, have been increasingly critical of US policy.
Erdogan accused the US of not keeping its promises regarding the withdrawal of its partnered forces, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from areas liberated from Islamic State.
“Unfortunately, the current administration also tells us it is in cooperation with the SDF, the new name of the YPG. They shouldn’t do this.
We were here before them and we know perfectly well who is who in this region,” Erdogan said.
In comments that reflect the official Turkish view, Ibrahim Kalin, a special adviser to the Turkish president, wrote in the Daily Sabah: “There is growing assessment that the US is using both Daesh and the YPG as an excuse to remain in eastern Syria as a potential counter-weighing force against the Russian-Iranian presence.”
Turkey sees the YPG as the “Syrian branch” of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and, thus, a terrorist organization. In his piece, Kalin referenced claims that the US-led coalition and SDF allowed hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families to leave Raqqa in October.
“[This shows] once again the utter poverty of the policy of having one terrorist organization fight another,” he wrote.
Kalin says Turkey demands that “Syria’s territorial integrity must be maintained” and that foreign fighters for the regime and the YPG must leave Syria: “A transitional government should be established to include all Syrian stakeholders and prepare the ground for free and fair elections.”
He argues that the YPG “cannot be part of any political solution,” and that Assad “is not the person to lead Syria to a democratic and all-inclusive rule.” The meeting in Sochi is supposed to address these issues, alongside the talks that have taken place in Astana and Geneva.
The Russians, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, see the summit as including the “guarantors of the process of political settlement and stability and security that we see now in Syria.”
The Sochi meeting comes just a week and a half after Putin met US President Donald Trump in Danang, Vietnam.
“The presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria,” a joint statement read on November 11. The statement called for the implementation of UNSCR 2254, which would involve constitutional reform and “free and fair elections under UN supervision.”
The statement emphasized the importance of communication in eastern Syria between US and Russian forces and “deconfliction” efforts. It also mentioned the southwest Syrian cease-fire agreed to with Jordan.
It was a practical statement, whereas the Sochi meeting is seen to be an important diplomatic step with wider regional implications.
Russia, Iran and Turkey all differ on the Syrian conflict, but over the last year it appears their relationship has trended toward a more harmonious one and the Americans have been left out in the cold.
Turkey and Iran grew closer over the Qatar crisis in July and over the Kurdistan independence referendum in northern Iraq in September. Turkey and Russia also surmounted the crises of the 2015 shooting down of a Russian Su-24 by Turkey.
The Trump administration faces political problems at home over the relations his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had with Turkey and his former campaign chair Paul Manafort had with pro-Russian elements in Ukraine. This, to some extent, ties his hands on relations with Moscow and Ankara.
In addition, Ankara is outraged at the increasing presence of the US in eastern Syria and inferences that it intends to stay for the long term.
Trump already has rolled out a robust policy to confront Iran in the region, a policy that, as yet, has no practical elements to it but is thought to have empowered the Saudis in their moves in Lebanon and the Gulf.
What the Americans don’t have is a post-ISIS strategy for Iraq, Syria and the region.
The trilateral summit enshrines the inability of US strategy to make headway. Iran, an enemy of the US is sitting with Turkey, a NATO ally, alongside Russia. Washington’s allies in eastern Syria should be concerned.