Selected Analysis

Astana Format and the Prospects of a Trilateral Understanding On Syria

Two years and a half after the initiation of the Astana peace process, Iran, Russia and Turkey are continuing their close cooperation to find a diplomatic solution for ending the crisis and civil war in Syria. In this vein, a new round of trilateral talks within the Astana format is going to be held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan in August to address the latest developments in Syria and how to go ahead with implementing the previous agreements. 

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has said that Ankara will host the presidents of Iran and Russia for a new trilateral summit within the same format later in August. It will be the third summit of this kind, with the two previous meetings taking place in Sochi and Tehran.

The new diplomatic interactions in the Astana format are taking place against the backdrop of new political and military developments regarding Syria, which have obviously made closer contacts between the three countries necessary.

On the one hand, the situation in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib is still far from being stable, as the area is still considered to be the last stronghold of the radical terrorist groups in Syria. In fact, after a Russian-Turkish deal on stabilizing the situation in Idlib failed to result in eradicating the terrorists from that part of the country, the terrorist groups have recently intensified their activities against the Syrian government. Trying to take into account Turkey’s considerations about the negative impacts of a massive military operation in the area for its own national security, the Syrian government and its allies have so far refrained from conducting such an operation, but they insist that the situation in Idlib and its surrounding areas needs to be addressed urgently.

On the other hand, contrary to US President Donald Trump’s previous claims of an imminent American military withdrawal from Syria, the US has in fact taken steps to strengthen its position in the Arab country. In this vein, Washington has not only increased its support for the armed rebel groups in eastern Syria, but has also asked its allies in the so-called anti-ISIS coalition to send additional troops to Syria. During a recent visit to an American military base in Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey met with members of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Council, where he reportedly assured them that the American forces will remain in northeastern Syria.

Meanwhile, the UN-supported efforts to form the Syrian Constitutional Committee have been underway since the last time the three presidents met, with the latest positions taken by the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen indicating to the possibility that the committee is going to be formed in the near future. The committee is to be tasked with devising a new constitution for Syria and paving the way for a political transition in the country.

Given the above mentioned developments, the three issues of Idlib, eastern Syria and political transition are expected to be top on the agenda of both upcoming Astana format meetings in Nur-Sultan and Ankara.

However, and despite having a general agreement on the agenda, the three sides may have different priorities on how to proceed with the next steps in Syria. Although, given the threat the activities of the terrorist groups in Idlib poses to the Russian positions in western Syria, Moscow will most probably seek to reach a final solution for eradicating the terrorists there, Iran seems to be more concerned about the increased American activities in eastern Syria. Indeed, the new round of tensions between Tehran and Washington has contributed to Iran’s concerns about the presence of American troops in Syria and their plans to curb the Islamic Republic’s influence in the country.

At the same time, as tensions between the US and Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense systems have been only on the rise, obscuring the prospects of a US-Turkish understanding on Syria, Turkey might become more willing to reach a mutually acceptable solution with its two Astana partners on the issues of diverging interests. This could have serious implications for the situation in both major remaining hotspots in Syria, i.e. Idlib and the east. In either case, it seems that the issue of Constitutional Committee is the most possible area of agreement between the three sides, as they have been trying for quite a long time to leave behind their differences and prove the efficiency of the Astana format to initiate a meaningful political process in Syria.

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