Peace in Syria still a far cry
The Syrian crisis is entangled between the external actors in war. Only a compromise can prevent the war from being prolonged
The failure of the Presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey at their summit on Friday to push for a ceasefire in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel-held area, has virtually given a green signal to the embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad to unleash full scale assault to recapture and establish his hold on the province.
The summit in Teheran between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his counterparts from Russia (Vladimir Putin) and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was viewed as a chance for a diplomatic solution before Assad's forces launched a full-scale offensive that could cause a humanitarian disaster involving tens of thousands of civilians.
The meeting, instead, highlighted the stark differences between the allies of convenience in Syria's seven-year-old civil war, although they agreed in a final statement, on the need to eliminate Islamic State, the Nusrat Front, and other groups linked to al-Qaeda and designated as terrorists.
Erdogan called for a ceasefire and an end to airstrikes in Idlib. The suggestion was not acceptable to Putin and Rouhani. Putin called for total annihilation of terrorists in Syria saying a ceasefire would be pointless, as it would not involve Islamist militant groups. Rouhani said Syria must regain control over all its territory.
Turkey, which backed opposition forces against Assad, fears an exodus of refugees in the country fleeing a military offensive. "Idlib is not just important for Syria's future, it is of importance for our national security and for the future of the region," Erdogan said, adding, "any attack on Idlib would result in catastrophe…We don't want Idlib to turn into a bloodbath."
For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian regime, recapturing Idlib is crucial to complete President Assad's rule over the whole country. The province is the insurgents' only remaining stronghold and a government offensive could be the war's last decisive battle. Syrian troops have recaptured almost all other major parts of the country defeating the rebellion against President Assad.
Each of these three nations and many other actors have their own interests in the seven-year-long war that has claimed the lives of close to half a million people and forced 11 million to flee their homes.
Russia is maintaining its presence in the Mediterranean to fill the vacuum left by the US' long uncertainty about what it wants in the conflict. Iran wants to secure its Shiite Crescent from Iraq to Lebanon and keep its foothold in Syria, neighbouring Israel.
The US, which has some 2,000 troops and outposts in Syria, has warned that any military offensive in Idlib "would be a reckless escalation". It has also been engaged in pursuing ways to prove its power in the Middle East. Iran, Russia, and Turkey separately face sanctions from the US under President Donald Trump's administration.
Turkey, which backed opposition forces against President Assad, fears a flood of refugees in its territory fleeing a full-scale military offensive in Idlib province and surrounding areas, home to three million people—nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria. That also includes about 10,000 hardcore fighters including al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Turkey already hosts four million Syrian refugees and has sealed its borders to newcomers. It has also created zones of control in northern Syria and has several hundred troops deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib.
Besides the refugee problem, Idlib is important to Turkey for another reason--it serves as a shield that prevents the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) terrorist organisation from expanding its area of operation in Syria. The group is calling for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey.
Turkey's dilemma is the future of its armed groups deployed across the province, how to protect the civilians once the full-scale offensive starts and deal with the exodus of millions of new refugees towards it and from there to Europe. About seven million Syrians have fled to more than 40 countries, since the outbreak of war.
The three countries—Iran, Russia and Turkey-- have held several rounds of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in an attempt to find a way to end the conflict.
So far, the best outcome of these talks has been a memorandum of understanding on de-escalation zones in Syria, which has sharply reduced fighting in the country. Through this agreement, Turkey has established 12 military posts in Idlib at which Turkish forces are deployed between the opposition forces and the Syrian army.
The powers from outside the region that have intervened in the war have picked up sides rather than pushing for peace.
The Syrian crisis is entangled between the external actors in war. Unless a compromise is reached among all the actors, the war is likely to prolong. All sides need to find ways to fight rebels without risking the safety of civilians. Russia, Iran, and Turkey should try to broaden and strengthen the de-escalation zones and take initiative for a rational roadmap for peace in Syria.
(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)