With US Absent on Syria, Turkey Finds Common Ground with Russia and Iran

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continued to grab the attention of President Joe Biden’s administration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sat down with his Iranian and Russian counterparts to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria, where US troops and sanctions remain in place.

While Moscow and Tehran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war, Turkey’s capital Ankara has continued to back an embattled yet entrenched insurgency. Despite their differences, the trio of leaders have met since 2017 as part of the trilateral Astana process and Tuesday’s meeting marked the first such session since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine nearly five months ago.

The three leaders appeared to find some common ground as well, especially as it relates to opposing US policy in Syria.

In addition to affirming that there was “no military solution” to the conflict in Syria, agreeing on the need to eliminate terrorism and opposing any attempts to divide the country, the heads of Iran, Russia and Turkey “expressed grave concern at the humanitarian situation in Syria and rejected all unilateral sanctions” against the country in a joint statement.

Such sanctions, on which the US has doubled down in recent years over allegations of human rights abuses by Assad’s government, were described as being “in contravention of international law, international humanitarian law and the UN Charter including, among other things, any discriminatory measures through waivers for certain regions which could lead to this country’s disintegration by assisting separatist agendas.”

Following the talks, the leaders held separate bilateral meetings and Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi both said the trio had also agreed on the need for a US military withdrawal from Syria.

“We have certain differences concerning what is happening on the Euphrates eastern bank. But we have a shared position that American troops must leave this territory,” Putin said, according to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency. “They must stop robbing the Syrian state, Syrian people, illegally exporting oil from there.”

Raisi offered a similar account, saying “the sides agreed that … US forces must leave the area near the Euphrates,” TASS reported.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has found common ground with the leaders of Russia and Iran over US sanctions in Syria. Above, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, center, and Erdogan, right, pose for a photo before a trilateral meeting on Syria in Tehran, Iran, on July 19, 2022.
Photo by SERGEI SAVOSTYANOV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of US troops remain deployed to Syria with the stated mission of supporting partners on the ground to defeat the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Most of these soldiers are deployed in Syria’s northeast, where they support the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led faction opposed by Turkey due to what Ankara considers direct ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

For at least two months, Erdogan has threatened to conduct a fourth military intervention into northern Syria. US officials have vocally protested such warnings, but have given no indication that it would oppose with force against a NATO ally, especially as Turkey’s vote proved essential to greenlighting Finland and Sweden’s membership to NATO amid heightened tensions with Russia.

Russian and Iranian officials have also called on Turkey to avoid military action, and have expressed hope that the Astana talks could prevent such a scenario.

Damascus, for its part, considers both the US and Turkish military presence in the country to be illegal because it operates outside the auspices of Assad’s government, which coordinates directly with Moscow and Tehran.

While Biden pulled US troops out of Afghanistan last August and ended the “combat mission” without withdrawing US personnel at the end of last year, the White House had made no major changes to US policy in Syria a year and a half into the administration. The topic did come up frequently, however, during Biden’s trip last week to Saudi Arabia, where he met with a number of Arab leaders to discuss regional and international affairs.

The US has continued to conduct military operations in Syria, targeting members of ISIS and Al-Qaeda-linked factions, most of which have been caught operating in the northwestern rebel-held Idlib province and surrounding areas. Last week, the Pentagon announced a US drone strike had taken out the head of ISIS’ Syria branch in northwestern Syria, the latest of the group’s leadership to die after the last two heads were killed during US raids in Idlib in October 2019 and January of this year.

Russia has also continued to conduct operations in the country, notably bombing the positions of Pentagon-backed fighters of the Maghawir al-Thawra rebel group within the vicinity of the US military garrison in the southeastern Al-Tanf desert region last month. Washington has also accused Tehran of backing militia groups that have fired on US troops in northeastern Syria as well as in neighboring Iraq.

US ally Israel has also pressed on with a semi-covert campaign of airstrikes in Syria, largely targeting positions suspected of having links to Iran, drawing criticism from Damascus, Moscow, Tehran and the United Nations special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen.

In a statement shared Saturday, Pedersen’s office said that a meeting of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, an intra-Syrian effort to find peace through the establishment of a new constitution, would no longer be held next week, but gave no reason for the cancellation.

Last month, however, Russia’s own special envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentiev had called for the session to be postponed as host country Switzerland has lost its neutrality and become too “anti-Russian” due to its decision to adopt sanctions against Moscow in response to the war in Ukraine.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.

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