Spotlight: No big achievement in Sochi, Idlib offensive likely delayed: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2019-02-16 21:28:52|Editor: xuxin
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ISTANBUL, Feb. 16 (Xinhua) -- The latest Syria summit among the Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders has achieved no major progress as the priorities of the three countries diverge, while Ankara appears to have persuaded its partners to defer a looming military operation in Idlib, analysts told Xinhua.

"The Sochi summit has achieved no concrete results," said Cahit Armagan Dilek, director of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, who argued that the leaders' statements revealed nothing new.

The Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents met on Thursday at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss the long-running conflict in Syria.

Idlib, the last major stronghold for the rebels, was a major topic at the summit, the first gathering by the three leaders following the U.S. announcement of troop withdrawal from Syria last December.

"The trilateral meeting in Sochi was mainly useful only in terms of its emphasis on and reiteration of the importance of Syria's sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity," said Faruk Logoglu, a former senior Turkish diplomat.

"Nonetheless, this was not enough to hide the fact that the three countries have divergent interests and priorities in Syria," he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the three countries agreed to take some extra steps to clear Idlib of the terrorists without specifying what those steps were.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the media that there would be no military operation in Idlib which borders Turkey.

Unless the terror groups increase their attacks on Russian and Syrian army positions, Russia would, so as not to offend Turkey, do with occasional air strikes and artillery fire on rebel positions, argued Dilek, also a former staff officer in the Turkish military.

Turkey appears to have managed to persuade Moscow to put off a military operation against the rebels, he stated, noting, however, Moscow's patience is wearing thin.

"I expect the status quo (in Idlib) to continue until at least Turkey's local elections on March 31," remarked Dilek.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish and Russian militaries agreed to conduct joint patrols in Idlib to monitor cease-fire, adding no heavy weaponry had been spotted by Turkish drones in the demilitarized zone in the Syrian province, a requirement of the Idlib deal.

"What the concrete steps promised in the joint declaration regarding Idlib are remains to be seen," said Logoglu, who does not rule out a Russia-led offensive against the terrorists in Idlib in the days ahead.

Ankara originally talked Moscow into putting aside an impending military offensive on the rebels in Idlib back in September, when the two countries inked a deal on Idlib on settling the issue politically.

However, Moscow has increasingly grown impatient with Ankara's failure to ensure, based on the Idlib deal, that Russian and Syrian army positions are not attacked by the rebels.

The presence of terrorist groups in Idlib should not be tolerated, Putin said at the Sochi summit, urging Ankara and Tehran to take joint actions against the terrorists in the province.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani positively responded to Putin's call, saying the Idlib deal between Moscow and Ankara had not worked.

Erdogan said he expected the Idlib agreement to be respected, underlining that Ankara would continue to prevent the jihadist rebels from attacking the Russian military base in Syria's Hmeymim.

Under the Idlib deal, Turkey should have persuaded the radical Islamist groups to withdraw by mid-October into Idlib's inner parts for the creation of a 10-15-km-wide demilitarized zone around the province.

However, the Syrian and Russian militaries have often complained about occasional rebel attacks on their positions around Idlib since then.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaida-linked jihadist group, gained control of around 90 percent of the province last month following clashes with Turkey-backed rebel groups.

Turkey fears a major military offensive on Idlib would send a fresh wave of refugees to its border, a scenario which could negatively affect the chances of the Turkish ruling party led by Erdogan in the upcoming local elections.

The second reason behind Ankara's opposition to any military action against Idlib is that it wants the issue to be resolved at UN-led peace talks and the so-called moderate rebels close to Ankara to be part of the process for a political settlement in Syria.

Russia does not want to damage its partnership with Turkey by starting a major offensive on Idlib, Dilek said.

Turkey joined efforts with the U.S. to topple the Syrian government until 2016, then has cooperated more with Moscow in Syria since mid-2016 amid Ankara's resentment of U.S. military support to the Kurdish militia in Syria.

At the Sochi summit, Ankara was unable to get support from Moscow and Tehran for its security zone plan in northeastern Syria against the Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG).

Ankara is trying, so far unsuccessfully, to talk the U.S. into handing over to it the Kurdish militia-held territory in Syria following the withdrawal of the U.S. troops.

Turkey is threatening to take military action to kick the YPG out of Manbij and northeastern Syria, where the U.S. has over a dozen military bases.

Ahead of the summit earlier Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said no safe zone should be established without the consent of Damascus.

To Ankara's possible disappointment, Iran's Rouhani said Kurds should also be granted their rights as they are part of the Syrian nation.

Rouhani's remark about Kurds should be taken as opposition to any Turkish incursion into Syria, stated Dilek, who noted that Moscow also indicated its opposition to any such move without Damascus' consent.

"Both Russia and Iran want an extension of the control by the Syrian government over all its territory, while Turkey looks for maintaining its physical presence and influence in Idlib, Manbij and northeastern Syria," said Logoglu.

Moscow and Tehran have long urged Ankara to establish dialogue with the Syrian government, an offer rejected by Ankara until recently as it denounced Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a murderer.

However, Ankara gave its first signal of policy change toward Damascus after Erdogan met with Putin in Moscow in late January.

Ankara's changing attitude was confirmed at the Sochi summit, as Moscow and Tehran underlined that the best way Ankara could get rid of its concerns about terrorism was through cooperation with Damascus.

Erdogan signaled at the summit that Ankara would base its future ties with Damascus on the so-called Adana agreement inked by Turkey and Syria in 1998 in a bid to jointly fight against terrorism.

"Under the current circumstances, the best option for Turkey is to enter into direct talks at the political level with the Syrian government, the sooner the better," said Logoglu.