ANKARA – The latest summit on Syria hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara with his Russian and Iranian counterparts started on Monday, with attention focused on Damascus’s push on the last rebel-held bastion of Idlib.
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani met Erdogan for separate bilateral talks in the Turkish capital before they sat down together for their fifth summit on the conflict since 2017.
Iran and Russia have been staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has called for his ouster and backed opposition fighters.
But with Assad’s position looking increasingly secure, Turkey’s priority has shifted to preventing a mass influx of refugees from Idlib into Syria’s northwest.
“We are in complete agreement in aiming for a lasting political solution for Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity,” Erdogan said in a televised statement as the summit began.
Turkey is concerned over the steady advance of Syrian forces into the region, backed by Russian air power, despite a series of cease-fires.
Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib to enforce a buffer zone agreement struck a year ago with Russia to prevent a full-scale Syrian offensive.
But the posts look increasingly threatened, with one of them cut off from the rest of Idlib when Syrian forces advanced last month.
Russian airstrikes have continued in the region despite the latest cease-fire agreed by Ankara and Moscow on Aug. 31.
“A zone of de-escalation should not serve as a terrain for armed provocations,” Putin said as the summit began.
“We must take supplementary measures to completely destroy the terrorist menace that comes from the zone of Idlib.”
The Turkish presidency said the leaders would discuss the latest developments in Syria as well as “ensuring the necessary conditions for the voluntary return of refugees and discussing the joint step to be taken in the period ahead with the aim of achieving a lasting political solution.”
Moscow is keen to see progress on establishing a constitutional committee to oversee the next stage of the political settlement in Syria.
That would give Putin a political win to add to the military victories, said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group.
After his meeting with Rouhani, Putin said he hoped they were “now in the final stages” of forming the constitutional committee.
But Khalifa said expectations should remain low.
Even if they can agree on who will form the committee, “this leaves a crux of issues unaddressed for the future of the political process including the regime’s ability and willingness to undertake any kind of political reform,” she told AFP.
High on everyone’s mind at the summit was the weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities, which Washington has blamed on Tehran, deepening bilateral tensions and putting the region on the brink of further conflict.
Iran has been a crucial actor on the battlefield in Syria but has kept a lower profile in recent months. Its focus has been on countering Israeli and U.S. involvement.
“The presence of American military forces in a United Nations member and independent country such as Syria endangers its territorial integrity and national sovereignty,” Rouhani said at the start of the summit.
“American forces should leave the country at once.”
Meanwhile, Turkey has other concerns regarding Syria.
It has repeatedly threatened to launch a cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, whom it sees as allied to Kurdish militants in its own territory.
That has strained Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States, which backs the Syrian Kurds as the main fighting force against the Islamic State group (IS).
The U.S. has vowed to work with Turkey to move Kurdish forces away from its border, but Ankara says progress has so far been “cosmetic” and it could launch an operation into Syria by the end of this month.
Turkey has conducted previous offensives against IS in 2016 and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in 2018.