Russia, Turkey and Iran seeks unity on Syria, but divisions remain

ISTANBUL, Shabtai Gold (dpa) - Three of the main foreign combatants in war-torn Syria agreed Wednesday to speed up efforts to bring calm, protect civilians and improve humanitarian aid deliveries, but failed to lay out a path forward amid lingering differences about the conflict.
Iran and Russia have each lent significant support to the Syrian government amid years of fighting, while Turkey has intervened, sometimes putting its interests at odds with the other two. The three countries are driving the so-called Astana process, which aims to impose "de-escalation zones" in Syria.

Excluded from the summit was the US, the other major foreign power on the ground, which has backed Kurdish militants in the country, putting it at odds with both Syria - and its benefactors - and Turkey, which has long opposed a Kurdish presence in the region.
Hinting at tensions between the Astana countries as they met in Ankara, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani called for the withdrawal of "all troops" from Afrin, referring to a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria which Turkey seized last month.
In the comments carried by Iranian state media, Rowhani said the Syrian army should be given control over the enclave, as well as other contested parts of Turkey. Turkey has in the past said it has no time table for withdrawing from Afrin, only that it will one day return the enclave to its "real owners."
Nonethless, at a press conference between Rowhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the emphasis was on the need to preserve Syria's territorial integrity and avoid conflict.
But even that papers over clear differences between the countries. Russia and Iran continue to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Erdogan has repeatedly called him a "murderer."
They did still find areas where the agreed. According to a joint statement by the three leaders after a meeting lasting one hour and 40 minutes, they "rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism" as well as opposing separatism.
This appeared to be a jab at the United States and the main Syrian-Kurdish militia, the YPG, which has sought to set up autonomous zones in eastern Syria and is working together with Washington to tackle Islamic State. Turkey deems the Kurdish militia to be a terrorist group.
All three Astana countries are facing headwinds in their relations with the West.
The US, which has grown concerned over NATO ally Turkey edging closer to Moscow, has said the Astana process is a failure, citing the intense violence amid fighting between Syrian troops and rebel forces in Eastern Ghouta and other areas.
Iran and Russia are both looking to limit US influence in Syria. Trump, though keen to exit Syria, is also keen to curtail Iranian gains in the war-torn country.
In addition to Turkish and Russian flashpoint areas with the US, the Syrian government and the opposition could potentially clash again in Idlib, an area on the border with Turkey and the last province under rebel control.
Rebels evacuated from other areas of Syria retaken by the government have based themselves in Idlib, an area dominated by hardline jihadi factions, including militants with links to al-Qaeda.
A monitoring group reported airstrikes in Idlib, likely by the Syrian government or Russian forces, just ahead of the start of the summit in Ankara.
Erdogan cautioned there was a "tough road ahead" but voiced optimism about his cooperation with Iran and Russia.
Putin stressed there was a shortage of humanitarian aid and reconstruction programs were lagging far behind. Erdogan proposed working together on housing projects. The need to rebuild is great and core infrastructure has been badly damaged during war.
The next summit of the three leaders would take place in Iran, the statement said, without specifying a date. The Ankara meeting was the second for the countries, following one in Sochi last year.
Turkey and Russia are also seeing their economic and military cooperation expanding. Putin and Erdogan launched construction on Turkey’s first nuclear plant this week and Moscow aims to start delivering the advanced S-400 air defence system to Ankara next year.

Wednesday, April 4th 2018
Shabtai Gold (dpa)

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