ANKARA: Turkey, Iran and Russia pledged on Wednesday to accelerate efforts to bring stability to Syria, underlining their joint commitment to the country a day after President Donald Trump raised the prospect of withdrawing US troops.
A statement by the three countries after a summit meeting in the Turkish capital Ankara said they were determined to “speed up their efforts to ensure calm on the ground” in Syria.
While their decision to work together has done little to reduce violence in Syria, in part because of their own military interventions on opposing sides, it underlined their central role just as questions grow over Washington’s commitment.
A senior US official said on Wednesday Trump wanted US forces out of Syria relatively soon. “We’re not going to immediately withdraw but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” the official said.
Around 2,000 US troops are deployed in northern Syria on a mission to battle the remnants of the militant Islamic State group that once controlled the area.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said developments in Syria, where the Syrian army and its allies have driven back rebels in recent years, showed that the United States had “failed to topple the Syrian government” of President Bashar al-Assad.
“They wanted to fuel insecurity in order to maintain their own interests but they have gained no success,” he told a news conference after talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He added, however, that he believed US forces would stay in Syria.
Iran and Russia have both strongly supported the Syrian president, while Turkey backed anti-Assad rebels. Those differences have continued on the ground despite their political cooperation aimed at winding down some of the violence.
Turkey has waged a military campaign to drive Kurdish YPG fighters from north-western Syria’s Afrin district, while Russian air power and Iran-backed militias have supported Syrian army offensives in the Idlib and Ghouta regions.
Iran’s state television quoted Rouhani as telling Erdogan and Putin that Afrin should be handed over to Syria’s army.
“The developments in Afrin can only be useful if they do not violate Syria’s territorial integrity, and control of these areas should be handed over to the Syrian army,” the Iranian president said.
The summit at Erdogan’s presidential palace in Ankara was the second such tripartite summit following one in November 2017 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi hosted by Putin.
Erdogan insisted their meetings and talks in Astana were not an “alternative” to the UN-backed Geneva process to find peace in Syria.
But the three leaders said “the Astana format had been the only effective international initiative that had helped reduce violence across Syria and had contributed to peace and stability in” the country.
They added that it had given “impetus to the Geneva process in order to find a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict” in the statement.
The next three way summit would take place in Tehran, Erdogan said, but he did not indicate when that would be.
Some 350,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in Syria following anti-government protests in March 2011. Millions more have been forced to flee their homes.
Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2018