On Friday, 7 September, the Astana Troika summit in Tehran brought together the leaders of Iran, Russia, and Turkey to discuss the current situation in Syria. At the end of the meeting, a joint statement was released, mentioning, among other things: the need to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic and the idea of convening a conference on the return of refugees and IDPs to their homes. But everyone’s attention was primarily focused on the situation around the province of Idlib: the last of the four de-escalation zones established in spring 2017 by the participants of the Astana process. The remnants of armed opposition and extremists are concentrated in and around Idlib, including such terrorist organisations as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria) and Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Iran and Russia both see the necessity to restore control over Idlib as soon as possible, and during the summit tried to convince Turkey not to interfere with the planned operation. In the territory of Idlib today, there are more than three million people, and Ankara is afraid that a significant part of this population will rush through the Syrian-Turkish border when an Idlib offensive begins. Turkey has already accepted about three and a half million refugees as a result of the Syrian conflict.
Judging by the appearance of the leaders after the meeting, Hassan Rouhani and Vladimir Putin did not succeed in convincing Recep Erdogan of their plan. But there were no indications that Turkey is planning to actively hinder the upcoming operation. The Turkish president confined himself to warning of the humanitarian consequences of the operation.
Western media are already prepared to blame the Syrian army for new civilian casualties. Even more threatening is the impression that, judging by the numerous statements of Western politicians, there is a high risk that Damascus will be accused of using chemical weapons. This, in turn, could entail another military strike by Western countries on Syria. The last time this happened, it was essentially demonstrative. It cannot be guaranteed that this time the West will proceed in the same way though. In addition, there is always the danger of an unintentional strike by the military of one external actor on the other. The fact that this has been avoided so far should not be taken for granted.
From the fact that Turkey has hitherto consistently, but rather languidly, opposed the preparation of an Idlib offensive, it can be assumed that some agreement on this matter has already been reached between the participants of the Astana process. It might well be that Turkey’s reluctant consent to the Syrian government’s return to Idlib is the price for the opportunity to take Afrin earlier this year. In addition, Ankara apparently has no viable alternatives at the moment. The offensive is supported by Russia and Iran, while Turkey can’t expect tangible support from its NATO ally, the US – Turkey-US relations have deteriorated considerably as of late. Thus, Turkey has been left alone. However, one cannot exclude the fact that it is this very predicament that will push Ankara back to US.
Another issue looms on the horizon, bringing with it even larger risks. If Damascus’ control over Idlib is restored, the number one item on the agenda will be the northeast of the country, controlled by the primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Here, the military solution does not look viable, even if Iran, Russia, and Turkey come to an agreement (any anti-Kurdish activities would be supported by Turkey almost invariably). This is not only because of the rather efficient and disciplined Kurdish forces. Much more importantly, there are US military personnel stationed in the area, which makes the initiation of hostilities unacceptably risky.
On one hand, it is possible that the Kurds themselves will take part in the Idlib operation on the side of the Syrian government. If so, this would make a compromise with Damascus more likely. On the other hand, cooperation with Damascus would certainly create difficulties between Kurdish leaders and their US allies. For even if the Syrian government is ready to provide some degree of autonomy for the Kurds, it would be on the condition that the US leaves Syria, as Donald Trump announced was his intention.
Will the Astana partnership stand this endurance test? On the surface, the summit in Tehran has not achieved its key goal, and no consolidated position was formed. But some other agreements regarding Syria still could be achieved. The next couple of weeks will show whether this is true or not.