The summit in Sochi slated for Feb. 14 will bring together Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in their first meeting since the United States announced a pullout from Syria.
In an interview with major Russian media outlets — Kommersant, Ria Novosti and TASS — Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said Moscow wants “the American occupation to end.” For Russia, an ideal scenario would include the handover of US-controlled territory to the Syrian government. These include the eastern bank of the Euphrates, Manbij and the US outpost at al-Tanf hugging the borders of Jordan and Iraq. However, it remains unclear whether the Americans are ready to withdraw from all these areas. The US military base in southeastern Syria and the 55-kilometer (34-mile) safe zone around it raise the most questions from Moscow.
Vershinin and the special presidential envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, are in charge of the Syrian peace process and related talks with the UN and Moscow's regional partners. As Vershinin sees it, the Sochi trilateral summit will consider “the main issue of how to prevent destabilization and chaos amid the US withdrawal and to allow for a smooth control over the process.”
It seems certain that the Americans will not hand over control of their military bases and the Iraqi border to the Syrian government. In choosing their successors, the Americans will opt for either Turkey or the Kurds. Being more in favor of the latter, Moscow — in every possible way — has been encouraging a dialogue between the Kurds and Damascus. As long as the dialogue continues, Russia will try to prevent Turkey from mounting a new military operation against the Kurds on Syrian soil. Vershinin made clear that the presence of the Syrian army around Manbij, which Ankara lays claims to, and Russian patrols of the districts around the city were a signal of intent of sorts.
“During the US withdrawal [from Syria] there should not be a vacuum that will be filled by terrorists or pro-regime elements,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier this week.
Asked by Kommersant to comment on Cavusoglu's statement, Vershinin said, “We have always stated that before talking about other sides’ security, we must speak about Syria’s restored territorial integrity.” In his interview, the deputy foreign minister repeatedly emphasized the fact that Ankara, a party to the Astana process, had put its signature to the documents safeguarding Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and must live up to its promises.
Moscow appears to disapprove of Ankara’s plan to set up a 32-kilometer (20-mile) buffer zone. Putin has referred to the Adana protocol of 1998 as a way for Damascus and Ankara to settle the issue.
“We will never agree with part of sovereign Syrian territory remaining out of Damascus' control,” Vershinin said. But he also made an allusion that indicated that the idea of the buffer zone is being examined and that compromises are possible. Moscow apparently seeks to persuade Ankara that a zone may not be necessary and that it will suffice to ensure that border security will prevent militants from penetrating Turkey. To that end, Syria should be allowed to station its troops at the border. Should this option fail, Russia will insist on defining the zone as a temporary solution in all documents, which is the case for all the de-escalation zones; Idlib is the only remaining functioning de-escalation zone.
Until now, Syrian authorities have been vocally critical of Ankara’s actions on that front. Yet Syrian opposition media reported that Turkish security officials and Damascus representatives had negotiated in Moscow in early February. Vershinin neither confirmed nor denied the reports about such a Syrian-Turkish meeting in Moscow.
As far as the situation around Idlib is concerned, the statements by Russian policymakers make it increasingly apparent that a military operation is unavoidable. This has become even more so the case as almost the entire de-escalation zone is now controlled by terrorists rather than the armed opposition. When asked about evacuation plans for Idlib’s civilian population, Vershinin replied, “We deem any attempts on our part or on the part of the entire international community to preserve the presence of terrorists in this province … both unnecessary and unacceptable.”
“The operation will be undertaken in the most efficient way,” Vershinin said, avoiding specifying whether the Russia-backed Syrian army would spearhead the operation or if it would be a joint Turkish-Russian campaign. Finding the most effective way to eliminate terrorists and minimize civilian casualties in Idlib is also likely to be on the Sochi summit agenda.
In addition to discussing the situation on the ground, the summit will also address, as usual, the issue of political settlement in Syria. After nearly 12 months of negotiations, the Astana trio has compiled a list of 150 candidates for the Syrian constitutional committee. The list has also been approved by Damascus and the Syrian opposition, yet Western states pressured the UN into refusing to back the list. For now, about five to six names from the “civil society quota” have raised doubts.
“Russia and [other] guarantors are ready to consider the UN reservations to preserve the cornerstone, the essence of our work, to keep the list intact at its core and, if necessary, change a few names without compromising the quality,” Vershinin said.
“Quality,” in Moscow’s reading, implies consent to the list by all the parties to the conflict as well as the mediators.
“The approval of the parties means that they will not quit the political process. It happened repeatedly in the past that when a round of consultations was convened in Geneva, it was followed by the withdrawal of a party for some reason. We cannot allow that to happen,” the diplomat said.
The Iranian-Israeli conflict in Syria is unlikely to be address at the summit, but is one issue which has a tremendous impact on the Syrian conundrum. Putin will be meeting with Rouhani on Feb. 14 and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Feb. 21. Moscow cannot openly accuse Tehran of building up its presence on the Syrian territory to oppose Israel. That is why Russia publicly condemns the Israeli attacks on Syria while hardly doing anything to avert them. The red line for Moscow is the security of Russian military and specialists in Syria.
“We stated that such arbitrary attacks on sovereign Syrian territory should be stopped and ruled out,” Vershinin said. At the same time, commenting on Iran’s actions, he made it clear that they should be limited to supporting the Syrian government in its fight against terrorism.
Commenting on Israel's view that Hezbollah bases in Syria are “legitimate targets” since they are used by terrorists, just as Turkey considers it legitimate to launch offensive against Kurds affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, Vershinin said, “We respect the stance of all countries, including on such quite sensitive issues. We presume that there is a list of terrorist organizations compiled by the UN Security Council. Everyone needs to respect the list and act accordingly. In all other matters it is up to countries to decide. Meanwhile, we stress that we abide by our main principles, the UN principles, including non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states.”
The statement can be interpreted in a number of ways. Still, there can be only one conclusion. Russia does not want to be at odds with other parties. It has its own red lines for each regional partner. However, it is ready to turn a blind eye to their actions if it gains support for a Syria policy Moscow considers necessary in return. This means that Russia is very tolerant when it comes to all players in Syria — except the United States.