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Influence of Summits: The Syrian File from Jeddah to Sochi

The Russian war on Ukraine drew the attention once more to the significance of the Middle East region on the international interactions map, which forced the influential powers to reassert their presence in the region, aiming to gain alignment on their side not only in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but also in the American-Chinese competition.

This explains the successive summits held in the region in July 2022: the Jeddah Summit for Security and Development, followed by the Tehran Summit. 

Even though the one in Tehran was meant primarily to discuss developments in Syria, analysts considered it as a reaction to Jeddah more than a summit on Syria. The great powers’ (the US and Russia) purpose behind these summits was to make situations clear, assure presence, as well as polarize players in the region, regardless resolving the region’s crises. Based on that, it can be said that the Syrian conflict has been marginalized on the international and regional competitors’ agendas, precisely, despite the presence of the Syrian issue within the summits negotiations, it was clear that consonance over coordination and work mechanisms inside Syria, or even resolving the conflict became linked with coordination in other issues, and depending on the on-ground-activities of the players inside Syria.

The Syrian Conflict in International Summits

Ever since January 2017, the Russian-Turkish-Iranian tripartite meeting has been looked at as a periodic meeting of the Astana Process guarantor powers, to discuss facts and political developments in Syria, and coordination tools between them. It has resulted in a number of field arrangements such as De-escalation Zones, abiding by ceasefire protocol in some areas, and most importantly, overcoming the inter-parties discrepancies over the Syrian crisis and agreeing on the necessity of continuation on that path as long as the crisis exists. That resulted in the significance of the Astana guarantors’ role in this conflict, hence, the importance of their conformance.

However, it may not be precise to describe their latest meeting as (periodic). Actually, the last realistic meeting between the three leaders took place in September 2019. Then, because of Covid-19 measures, the leaders held virtual meeting in June 2020, in which they agreed to hold the next one in Tehran whenever the pandemic measures allows, but the war in Ukraine postponed it. Some reports mentioned that: weeks ago, the Kremlin has announced that the visit may take place before the end of the summer, without any further details. While, oppositely, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced, on 12 July (a few days ahead of Biden’s Middle East tour) that 19 July is the date of the seventh meeting of the Astana guarantor leaders. Analysts have made connections between the two events.

The closing statements of those summits have been within the usual sentiment on Syria. Jeddah summit for security and development closing statement in its 13th article indicated the leaders’ assurance that efforts must be intensified in order to reach a political solution for the Syrian crisis. A solution that preserves Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and fulfills its people’s ambitions in a way that conforms to The UN Security Council Decree # 2245. In addition to leaders’ assurances to secure support for the Syrian refugees and their harboring countries, and extend humanitarian aid to all parts of Syria. 

The closing statement of Tehran summit was consistent in part with Jeddah summit with regard to the political solution for the crisis, in conformance with The UN Security Council Decree # 2245, assuring the importance of Decisive Contribution of the Astana Guarantors and the outcomes of the Syrian National Dialogue convention held in Sochi, marking the establishment of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. That indicated the importance of Astana Process in resolving the conflict, assuring that this Astana path is more important than The US-endorsed Geneva path, and that it is the pivot of stability in Syria. 

Since the Tehran summit was meant primarily to discuss the Syrian crisis, its closing statement included more details, some were regular protocol clauses about the territorial integrity of the Syrian state, the importance of pacification in the De-escalation Zones, as well as condemning the ongoing Israeli attacks on Syria, where other clauses expressed areas of disagreement between the three leaders.

The Turkish President came to the summit with an implicit main goal, which is persuade his Russian and Iranian counterparts of the importance of a new military operation in Manbidj and Tell Rifaat in Northern Syria. However, he seems to have failed, which could be concluded from two indicators: 

First, the confirmation by Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei during his meeting with Erdogan about the unity of Syrian lands, and that any attack on Northern Syria will serve only terrorist, and not any of the region’s states.

Second: The absence of Turkey’s security fears that necessitate a military operation from the closing statement, rather, assuring the continuation of working together to conquer terrorism in all its forms. 

Ankara’s announced goal of the military operation was – in addition to dealing with security fears – expanding and securing the Safe Zone in Northern Syria, which Turkey had already started in 2018 which aims –according to the Turkish statement- to encourage Syrian refugees to return to Syria and be re-settled in that zone. This contradicts with the Russian and Iranian perspective which was clear in the closing statement: Assuring safe and   voluntary return of refugees as well as domestic migrants to their original places inside Syria, and securing their right to return and receive support.

Despite the absence of Russian/Iranian consent –in Tehran summit closing statement– for a Turkish military operation, and resuming the state of coordination between the three parties, it was very likely that Turkey will renew its request during the Turkish President’s visit to Russia on 15 August and meeting with his Russian counterpart.

However, it is not clear whether or not Erdogan was able to persuade Putin of carrying out a military operation, especially that Sochi meeting’ agenda included other issues to negotiate, either mutual or multi-party, as consequences of the Russian war on Ukraine, which may have had the most significance in the discussions. This assumption is backed by the timing of the meeting which took place a few days after Russia and Ukraine have reached –under UN and Turkish mediation– Istanbul agreement that allows the continuation of exporting Ukrainian grains and fertilizers from Ukrainian black sea ports, as well as facilitating Russian fertilizers and other products supply to international markets.

In the shade of the European demarche to impose comprehensive sanctions on Russian energy exports, it is likely that Sochi negotiations have focused on the energy issues. During the summit, Putin said that Europe should be grateful for Turkey for the non-stop flow of natural gas; moreover, some Russian officials stated that Turkey has agreed to pay its huge energy bills in Russian Rubles.

The Influence of the Summits on the Syrian Interior

Based on the previous, it is obvious that those consecutive summits have no direct influence on the Syrian interior, where things develop according to the interests of the players, and on intermediate compromises they reach. This can be seen in current arrangements in Syria which have set and worked accordingly way ahead of those summits, and have been cemented afterwards, the most prominent of which are those followed by all parties in anticipation of a potential Turkish military operation. This can be deducted by the following: 

  • Russia’s respect for the arrangements: Despite media reports that talked about the retreat of Russian interest in Syria and the withdrawal of a big number of Russian troops from there to be re-deployed in Ukraine, developments indicate the continuation of Russian follow up of all what is going on the ground in Syria. Thus, Russia is sending a message that it still seizes leadership in the Syrian conflict despite its involvement in Ukraine. Beside its economic and geopolitical gains from its presence in Syria, the Syrian issue represents a crucial tool for Russia to be present and effective in all events in the Middle East. On top comes the will to fill out the space left by Americans, through introducing itself as a dependable ally, after the retreat of confidence in the Americans.

From this point, Russia’s patronage of current arrangements between Syria Democratic Forces SDF and the Syrian regime can be comprehended. On 15 July, SDF general leader (Mazloum Abdi) announced permitting the regime armed forces to spread over Kurdish dominance areas in Kobani and Tell Refaat, while being backed up in Manbij in coordination with Russia. On 30 June, a few days ahead of Sochi summit, SDF conducted a live-fire military drill together with the regime forces in Manbij, under surveillance from the Russian forces. It was said to be training on repelling a Turkish attack on Syria. Later, the Russian foreign ministry reconfirmed its refusal of such an operation.

The Kremlin spokesperson said –prior to the meetings in Sochi– that Moscow understands Turkey’s legitimate security fears in Syria, however, operations that endanger Syria’s unity and territorial integrity must be avoided.

Meanwhile, Russia resumes re-affirming its dominance in the Syrian airspace; it keeps targeting the areas of Sham Liberation Organization in Idlib in the west, and keeps targeting the Syrian Badya in the east, where Isis militants are assumed to be deployed. Moreover, Russian bombs reached areas adjacent to Al Tanf American Air Base. On 5 August, the Russian defense ministry announced that its air forces conducted an operation against a group of the opposition fighters which have previously been trained by the Americans. The American Department of Defense later confirmed to the media that this attack was the second largest known attack by Russian air forces near an American air base in two months.

  • Turkey’s ongoing attempts to establish a safe zone: The consecutive summits failed to obtain any party’s consent to a Turkish operation; however, Turkey did not refrain from intending to conduct the operation.

Despite what the Turkish President said to journalists –on his way back from Sochi- regarding mutual work and negotiations between Turkish and Syrian intelligence departments, and his understanding of the Russian President’s statement that the most logical solution to the Syrian conflict must be in cooperation with the Syrian regime, official Turkish assurances that the operation is imminent continued. This has been associated with reports in media platforms working closely to the government talking about an immediate danger coming particularly from Tell Refaat as it is a hub for terrorism and became a real threat to the safe zone established by Turkey in Northern Syria.

It can be said that new circumstances in the Turkish interior are main reasons for the Turkish determination to carry out the military operation. The Turkish President and his party’s popularity declined while the country is getting ready for the most pivotal elections in the history of the ruling party (Justice and Development Party AK) as well as the current regime in general, in addition to the growth of public rejection to Syrian refugees inside Turkey, the rejection that is strongly used by the opposition in its struggle against the regime. From there came the announcement of the Turkish President to send back a million Syrians to the safe zones established by Turkey in Northern Syria, and expanding this zone through another military operation. In addition, the Turkish regime continues its military activities aiming to rebut any attempt to establish a Kurdish secessionist existence on the Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian borders, in which the regime gets a wide public support. Thus, the Turkish regime is not expected to abandon its plans to conduct an operation for the interest of the 2023 elections.

In light of this dilemma where regional as well as international parties oppose a military operation, and the will of the regime to conquer its domestic opposition in the issues of refugees and the Syrian conflict, the Turkish government adopted two parallel paths to terminate the Kurdish threats:

Militarily, the Turkish army and its ally groups resumed cementing its positions and targeting Kurdish garrisons as well as Kurdish high and medium rank military leaders.

Diplomatically, there have been a number of Turkish official statements talking about readiness to interact with the Syrian regime. On 27 July the Turkish foreign minister announced that Turkey is willing to politically-support the Syrian regime to expel terrorists (SDF) from the border areas, he added that the Syrian regime has the right to eliminate the Terrorist Group from its lands, while it is not quite proper to treat moderate opposition (meaning the Turkish-supported National Army) as terrorists.

Lately, Jawish Oghlo unveiled that he has had a short conversation with the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad on the margins of The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference in October 2021, where he stressed the importance of reconciliation between the regime and opposition in Syria, one way or another, without which no peace can be achieved.

Despite that these statements indicate Turkish readiness to change its stance on the regime in Syria; it seems that there is an escalating condemnation by Syrian opposition to the ongoing re-evaluation process. That appeared in the statement of Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgic that explained Jawish Oghlo statement regarding the reconciliation between the Syrian regime and opposition. Bilgic said that Turkey supports a resolution that fulfills the legitimate ambitions of the Syrian people, and that there is currently no progress in the political path due to the regime’s procrastination.

  • Iran’s Exploitation of Circumstances: Iran has always been present in the Syrian scene. In addition to strengthening its garrisons in Southern Syria, and attempts to fill the vacuum left by the Russians, Iran started to occupy new spots in the north. Simultaneously with the Syrian army spread in the Kurdish areas in Tell Refaat and Manbij, Iran worked on cementing its presence there. According to some media reports, the Iranian flag has been raised on top of some buildings in Tell Refaat and Abian in Aleppo countryside areas that are controlled by SDF.

The Iranian actions aim at a number of goals. First, assuring its refusal of a Turkish military operation, specifically in Tell Refaat city, to the south of which lies one of the most important Iranian existence locations in Syria, the cities of Nubl and Alzahraa that have a Shiite population majority. The two cities are pivotal for being the hub of the Iranian military in the northern countryside of Aleppo, which makes the Turkish operation a threat to the Iranian existence in Aleppo province.  The Turkish control of Tell Refaat will constitute a major field as well as demographic re-shaping that serves the Turkification policies in the Turkish-occupied territories, which may limit the Iranian influence in its areas of domination.

On the other hand, seizing Tell Refaat by Turkey means expanding the Safe Zone, as per the Turkish concept. According to that concept, the plan is composed of two stages, Manbij and Tell Refaat are within the first.

However, Turkey’s success in conducting military operations under the pretext of securing and expanding the Safe Zone in Northern Syria, may lead to enabling it to perform the second stage of its plan, which aims to expand the zone to include Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces, which harms the Iranian domination areas in East Euphrates River, as well as strengthening the Turkish political and military influence in the Syrian topic.

In case Turkey conducts its operation, it will have to include Iran in any compromisation agreement that is to be reached in that region. Measures that follow Turkish military operations in Syria indicate arrangements and compromises primarily with Russia, without any Iranian involvement. Following operation Peace Spring, 2019 Turkish offensive into north-eastern Syria, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement –in October 2019– regarding the situation in Northern Syria. In addition, following Operation Spring Shield, the two sides –in March 2020– reached an agreement for seize fire and returning back to September 2018 when a Turkish-Russian agreement on a demilitarized zone between Syrian regime forces and opposition forces took place. The Iranian absence from previous agreements in Northern Syria can be observed, however, under the present Iranian involvement in the areas that are targeted by Turkey, the Turkish side will have –in case of conducting an operation- to coordinate with Iran in order to reach a compromise and avoid any possible clashes between forces.

In short, compromises and consonances taking place in Syria happen away from summits and conventions, as they are created by on-ground situations, meaning that the success of a party to impose a de facto situation, enables it to settle things according to its vision and priorities. Looking at what is going on at present, it seems that Russia has been able to impose facts in Northern Syria according to its interest. However, it is still very possible –according to accords and arrangements that can be reached on other issues- to reach Turkish-Russian consonances regarding new re-arrangements that serve Turkish interests in those regions. 

This may mean that Turkey conducts its operation or –alternatively– reaches an agreement with Russia –with implicit Iranian acknowledgement– to expel the Kurds from areas that represent threats to the Turkish national security, in exchange for spreading the Syrian armed forces within these areas, and perhaps, establishing a collaborative system to observe and coordinate the implementation of the agreement.  

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