By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The presidents of Iran, Turkey, and Russia have expressed determination to “speed up their efforts to ensure calm on the ground” in Syria, saying after a summit in Ankara on April 4 that they are committed to achieving a “lasting cease-fire.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and President Hassan Rohani of Iran agreed that the conflict can be ended “only through a negotiated political process,” according to a joint statement posted on Rohani’s website on April 4.
Erdogan hosted the Russian and Iranian presidents for the second such tripartite summit on war-ravaged Syria in less than six months. The leaders said after their April 4 meeting that a third summit will be held in Tehran at a date that is yet to be announced.
Speaking to reporters, Putin highlighted what he called the three leaders’ “firm commitment to the consolidation of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
He also endorsed a proposal by Erdogan for the three countries to jointly provide humanitarian aid to Syria and called on other nations to join the effort.
“What is foremost for us is getting results. We must get results. We have no tolerance for delays. People are dying here,” Erdogan told reporters.
In their joint statement, the three leaders said they were also determined to “protect civilians in the deescalation areas as well as to facilitate rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to these areas.”
The three countries are deeply involved in the seven-year war, cooperating to create “deescalation zones” to reduce fighting while backing separate sides: Russia and Iran support President Bashar al-Assad while Turkey supports rebels seeking his ouster.
They have also sponsored a series of negotiations on the Syrian conflict in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, which they argued were a parallel process to support UN-supported peace talks in Geneva.
Russia and Iran have given crucial military and diplomatic backing to Assad’s government throughout the war, which began with a government crackdown on protesters and has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Relations between Russia and Turkey soured badly after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015, weeks after Moscow began a campaign of air strikes that shored up Assad and turned the tide of the war.
But Putin and Erdogan have taken steps to mend ties since then as both countries’ relations the West have deteriorated.
After bilateral talks with Putin in Ankara on April 3, Erdogan said Turkey and Russia would continue their cooperation “focusing on our common interests” in Syria.
Rohani held separate talks with Erdogan and Putin on April 4 ahead of the trilateral summit.
Before traveling to the Turkish capital, the Iranian president said that foreign forces operating in Syria without approval from the Damascus government should leave.
Iranian state TV quoted Rohani as saying late on April 3 that he would discuss with Erdogan and Putin Syria’s reconstruction and work on a new constitution.
The three presidents held a similar three-way meeting in the Russian city of Sochi in November.
The aim of the Ankara gathering is to “reorganize and renegotiate the zones of influence in Syria as well as to reflect on the future of Syria’s north after U.S. withdrawal,” Jana Jabbour, a professor of political science in Paris, told the AFP news agency.
Elizabeth Teoman of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said that “Erdogan likely wants to use the summit to secure Russian and Iranian support for expanded operations in northern Syria or Iraq.”
On April 3, U.S. President Donald Trump said he wanted to decide “very quickly” whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria now that they have nearly completed their primary mission of defeating the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
A senior U.S. administration official on April 4 said Trump has agreed to keep U.S. troops in Syria “a little longer” but does not want a long-term commitment.
The official said Trump wants to ensure Islamic State is defeated and called on other nations in the region to help provide stability in Syria.
“We’re not going to immediately withdraw, but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” the official said.
Trump’s director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, on April 4 said the White House will announce its troop decision on Syria “relatively soon.’’
He told reporters that senior national security leaders met on April 3 and that “some decisions were made,” without being specific.
In addition to carrying out air strikes against IS, the United States has deployed about 2,000 troops in Syria, including U.S. special operations forces who have advised the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and helped them recapture territory from IS.
Turkey’s military and pro-Ankara rebels seized the SDF-controlled Afrin enclave in northwest Syria last month, disregarding U.S. warnings that such a move could destabilize the region further.
Despite the calls for a lasting cease-fire, Erdogan has indicated that Turkey could extend its operation to other areas near its southern border that are controlled by fighters led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Ankara considers as a terrorist organization.
“We are aware that many Syrians are waiting for when we complete our work on demining Afrin and rebuilding infrastructure so that they will be able to return to their homes,” Erdogan said.
“I reiterate that we will not stop until we bring peace and stability to the areas controlled by the People’s Protection Units,” he said, specifically mentioning the strategic city of Manbij.
Jabbour said that Moscow and Tehran would give free rein to Ankara against the YPG in exchange for bringing the Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups to the negotiating table.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions have been internally displaced or have fled Syria since the conflict broke out following antigovernment protests in 2011.