On February 14, Sochi hosted talks of the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are guarantor countries of the Syrian peaceful settlement.
The negotiations of Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani were tenacious, difficult and extremely tense. At the final news conference, the participants focused on political and humanitarian issues of the Syrian problem, while the main goal had been to reach a coordinated decision on neutralizing the military presence of terrorist and extremist opposition groups in the “Idlib de-escalation zone.”
Moscow and Tehran persistently advocate a peace enforcement operation against the anti-government troops in the northwestern part of Syria. Ahead of the Sochi meeting, Erdogan was vocally opposed to the very possibility of military action against the “re-branded” terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra (which is prohibited in Russia) and its followers. The Turkish leader argued that the hostilities would create an unmanageable flow of refugees to his country, which had already accepted over 3.5 million Syrians.
Besides, Ankara worries that the strike would target not only terrorists, but also opposition groups allied with Turkey, which it wanted to use in its fight against Syrian Kurds in the northeast of the country, when establishing a Turkey-controlled “security zone.”
However, upon return from Sochi, Erdogan told Turkish journalists that he “could not rule out the possibility of a joint operation with Russia and Iran in the “Idlib de-escalation zone” at any time depending on the developments.” “There are no obstacles to this,” he said. “The most important is to ensure peaceful life for the residents of the Idlib province.” He pointed out that there were several thousands of armed extremists in the province that controlled over 90% of its territory.
Apparently, Idlib was not the only topic on which the three leaders failed to develop a joint stance: control over northeastern Syria became another bone of contention, as Russia and Iran are adamantly opposed to Erdogan’s plans to establish a “security zone” there controlled by Turkey. Moscow and Tehran believe that the safety of the Turkish border should be protected by the Syrian government army, implying that Turkey should be guided by the Peace and Security Treaty it signed with Syria in 1998, for which purpose it should fully restore its relations with Damascus as soon as possible.
The three nations will continue talks at the level of foreign ministers, who will meet in Ankara in March to prepare the next summit of their leaders in Astana, Kazakhstan, in early April.