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September 17, 2019

Erdogan hosts Putin, Rouhani for Syria summit


September 17, 2019

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 al-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 airpower, despite a series of ceasefires. 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 ceasefire agreed by Ankara and Moscow on August 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 said.

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