There are two photos that I want to bring to your attention from the Astana Process meeting on Syria in Ankara on September 16 where Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were hosted by Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. Please take a good look at the faces of the three leaders in those photos posted on the Turkish Presidency’s official website.
The first pose struck at the end of the press conference right after the meeting, conveys coalescence.
The second photo was taken just as the three leaders had left the meeting and were walking towards the press conference room; they were not posing.
It’s safe to say that out of the three leaders, the one who looks the most content in both photos is Rouhani.
Putin’s facial expression and body language give off the impression of someone who’s said his piece, took his share, and who is now ready to move on to his other responsibilities.
Erdoğan’s demeanor, on the other hand, is that of someone who said what he had to say, could not get all what he wanted, but who had to settle for his share.
Taking a look at the final declaration and to what Erdoğan said at the press conference, we can indeed conclude that the “eyes don’t lie”.
For example, there is one particular sentence which said that all attempts to create new realities in the field under the guise of fighting terrorism, including illegitimate self-government initiatives in Syria, were “rejected”. It’s clear that this sentence is about the American control over East of the river Euphrates, almost one-third of Syria, in cooperation with the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); it’s also clear that this sentence represents a request made on Turkey’s part.
Another important detail in this conference was Erdoğan stating to Rouhani and Putin that Turkey will carry out its planning, which implies a military operation into Syria, if there is no Safe Zone agreement with the U.S. within two weeks. The end of September is two weeks away, which brings to mind the meeting Erdoğan says he will have with U.S. President Donald Trump in New York, on September 25. The Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TUBC) will host a dinner in New York in connexion with its $100 billion trading volume target but it looks like Erdoğan wants to clarify the PKK issue first. As Erdoğan said these, Rouhani, who had claimed that the U.S. was an illegitimate force in Syria, was quietly nodding and smirking.
Rouhani seemed especially pleased that the final declaration denounced the U.S.’s approval Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. After all, he has thousands of Revolutionary Guards in Syria for years. Russia is known to have made a few remarks on this issue before, mostly paying lip service.
On the other hand, even though Erdoğan blames the tension at Idlib and the Regime forces in Syria for the new wave of migration, the jihadist militant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organization is still seen as a serious source of worry. Putin said in the press conference that Russia will continue giving “limited” support to the Regime forces in Syria to control the situation in Idlib and that the fight against militants related to ISIS or al-Qaeda would not disrupt the Astana-Sochi agreement.
It looks like what Erdoğan gained from this is a promise from Putin that the syrian forces will not attack the Turkish military observers in Idlib; not an ideal answer to expectations of Ankara expectations.
The sole concrete result of the trilateral summit
The most important and perhaps the only real outcome of the September 16 trilateral summit was the declaration of the creation of a committee to write the ew Syrian Constitution.
This committee is aiming to cooperate with the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime, the Syrian opposition with the supervision of the United Nations Security Council.
In this way, Turkey, as an Astana Process guarantor, will have an indirect diplomatic tie with the Syrian regime. The Geneva Conference route is being cleared for Syria whilst the al-Assad regime is still active. Among the Astana guarantors Russia is the only UN Security Council member in this scenario. And, concerning why the Syrian Constitution hasn’t been made so far, Putin made a rather polite explanation to Erdoğan: that he had made great “effort and sacrifice” in choosing the final member of the equation. This means that the political talks on Syria were depending on Erdoğan giving that one final name.
This means that following the September 16 trilateral summit, Turkey will gradually withdraw the support it gave the “armed Syrian opposition”, also known as the Free Syrian Army.
Instead of that, the focus will shift on the constructions that will be made for the 3 million refugees who will go back to Syria from Turkey, whilst the new regime will be put in place.
By the way, Erdoğan gave yet another important information in-between the line: among the leaders Erdoğan is negotiating with for the financing of the new housing and infrastructure projects that will be put in place in Syria (hopefully by Turkish contractors), are German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. This, though, brings to mind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: was that call for the return of refugees a message to soften the relations? This could be yet another sign that Erdoğan is revisiting and revising the Syrian and Middle-Eastern politics he’s been applying since 8 years.
And concerning Saudi Arabia, what we understood from a question by a Russian colleague was that the attack on Saudi ARAMCO refineries by Iran-backed Yemenite militants has not been mentioned in the meeting. But Rouhani jumped on the question and he not only legitimized the attack but also appealed the people of Yemen to rise against the attacks sponsored by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Another note: The ARAMCO attack that shook the global oil market was not mentioned, but the s-400s were. Putin even made a “joke” about how they “sold the S-300s to Iran and the S-400s to Turkey”, implying he could sell new missiles to Syria.
I didn’t get a chance to ask questions; it was predetermined which journalists from which countries were to ask questions. I and some other colleagues were left unaddressed. If could, I would ask Putin and Rouhani whether they would back Turkey’s possible operation in Syria against the U.S.-backed PKK if Erdoğan couldn’t reach an agreement with Trump. And to Erdoğan, I would ask if he agreed with Putin and Rouhani’s definition of the al-Assad regime as the legitimate government of Syria and whether it should be backed.
In a way I’ve asked my questions now, haven’t I?