The Tehran Summit
Amb D P Srivastava, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

The trilateral Summit of Iran, Turkey and Russia concluded in Tehran on 7th September with a reaffirmation of support for the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. The Summit once again underlined the central role of Russia in crafting a political solution of the 7-year-old conflict. It also highlighted marginalisation of the European Union (EU), which bears the brunt of the migrant crisis but has no hand in shaping the political order. The US has limited its role to fighting the Daesh or ISIL. Though the Trump Administration is often criticised for its inaction, there is a continuity in US policy. Obama had also refused to get drawn in assuming a lead role in military action in Syria.

The most remarkable outcome of the Summit was what was not mentioned in the joint statement. Erdogan’s call for cease-fire was not accepted. President Putin rejected the Turkish suggestion on the ground that there was no way to ensure that the agreement will be binding on the terrorists who were not present at the conference. It is thus expected that ground offensive to clear the last major strong-hold of anti-Assad forces in the country will begin soon. The Summit statement referred to determination of the three participants to ‘continue cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate the Daesh/ISIL, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or Daesh/ISIL’, as they have been designated as terrorists by the UN Security Council. It held out an olive branch to the armed opposition groups that had joined or would join the ceasefire regime.

The Summit statement referred to a ‘political settlement’, and ‘help establish and launch the work of the Constitutional Committee’. As the wordings suggest, this is work in progress. The statement also reaffirmed determination of the leaders to ‘improving the humanitarian situation via facilitating rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all Syrians in need’. It also called for a voluntary return of refugees.

Given the lack of P-5 agreement, the UN is unable to shape the situation on the ground. Its role is limited to mitigating humanitarian consequences. According to a briefing of the Security Council by the Secretary General’s Special Representative Staffan De Mistura, Idlib has a population of about 2.9 million. This includes the population displaced from towns earlier captured by the Syrian Government – Homs, Aleppo and Ghouta. An assault on Idlib will force them to flee to Turkey, which is already hosting 3.5 million Syrian refugees. He described the situation as containing the ingredients for a ‘perfect storm’. Mistura stated that there could be ‘the flood of up to 7,00,000 refugees in the neighboring countries, Europe and beyond.’1 Mistura called on parties with leverage over ‘non-terrorist armed opposition factions in Idlib to ensure that they separate from such groups as Nusrah Front and put civilian lives first.’2 An alternative could be to ‘arm groups being given a deadline to exit Idlib’s most populated areas – rendering them safe for civilians and sparing lives.’3 He expressed the hope that some concrete suggestion would emerge from discussions between Iran, Turkey and Russia.

The US Permanent Representative Nikki Haley said that “the Russian Federation and Iran – have a playbook for war in Syria, which includes labelling all the residents of a city ‘terrorists’ and then perpetrating a ‘starve and surrender’ campaign against them.” She said that ‘the US will not consider funding reconstruction projects in Syria until concrete progress is made towards a political solution in ending the war.’ The Russian representative said that ‘freezing the situation in Idlib – part of the sovereign Syrian State – is not possible given the fact that up to 50,000 terrorist fighters are currently located there.’4 The Syrian representative said that ‘it remains his country’s sovereign right to carry out operations against the 50,000 terrorist fighters in Idlib. Such a huge number would never be tolerated in a Western city.’

President Erdogan’s media comments suggest that his country will no longer be willing or able to accept more refugees. This raises the specter of fresh exodus of refugees to Europe. The French representative acknowledged the danger to Europe in comments in the Security Council debate. He said that ‘The operation, should it occur, could spawn another crisis in the north of Syria and possibly in Europe and the rest of the world, including by causing the proliferation of jihadist groups’. Interestingly, the French representative urged the guarantors of the Astana Process to urgently halt the spiral. Obviously, there is no practical alternative to this channel. Unlike the western sponsored Geneva Process earlier, the Astana Process does not aim at finding a formula for transition from Assad regime. It has supported the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Turkey’s position represents a paradox. It supported the anti-Assad camp, and has ended up joining Russia and Iran – the powers backing Assad. As Tehran Summit showed, this has not helped Turkey exercise control on the actions of its diplomatic partners.

It is a historical irony that Syria’s fate is being decided by outside powers. Historically, it was seat of Ummayad Caliphate. Its modern shape took place with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. When General Allenby’s troops entered Damascus, it was part of Turkey. Turkey’s current role in Syria is rooted in historical suspicion. Unfortunately, Syria was not a party to the Tehran Summit, where the ‘guarantors’ of Astana Process decided its fate. There are contradictions within these powers. President Putin earlier this year had given a call for withdrawal of outside forces from Syria after the war. The comment was not well received in Tehran.

(The author is a former ambassador.)

  1. United Nations Press Release SC/13491 dated 7 September 2018.
  2. United Nations Press Release SC/13491 dated 7 September 2018.
  3. United Nations Press Release SC/13491 dated 7 September 2018.
  4. United Nations Press Release SC/13491 dated 7 September 2018.

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