Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara Wednesday for a second trilateral summit, part of ongoing efforts to end the Syrian civil war.
Iran, Russia and Turkey, the main backers of the opposing sides in the seven-year war, may make unlikely partners for peace. Increasingly, the leaders see one another as key to ending the conflict and achieving their regional goals.
At the end of the summit, a commitment was made by the attending leaders to return Syrian refugees. Such a commitment is particularly important for Ankara, given its hosting of about 3 million displaced Syrians from the conflict.
Refugees will return
Erdogan has pledged a return of the refugees, analysts say, because the Turkish president is aware they are increasingly becoming a political liability, with growing Turkish public unease over their presence.
A declaration released at the end of the summit saw the presidents committed to maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity.
“Maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity depends on preserving equal distance from all terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said at the summit’s closing press conference. “It’s very important that all terrorist organizations that are posing a threat not only to Syria and Turkey, but to all neighboring countries and even the whole region, are excluded without exceptions.”
Erdogan also reiterated his threat to expand Turkey’s military offensive against the U.S.-backed Syria Kurdish militia, the YPG, which Ankara accuses of secessionist aspirations and links to an insurgency inside Turkey.
Turkish-led forces last month ousted the militia from the Syrian Afrin enclave. The YPG is a key ally in Washington’s war against Islamic State, with U.S. forces deployed with the militia.
During his talks with his Russian and Iranian counterparts, Erdogan reportedly pressed for their support. It remains unclear if he was successful.
Tehran has voiced opposition to the Turkish offensive in Syria, calling for its immediate end. Analysts suggest the Iranians will likely be wary of a growing Turkish military presence in Syria that could ultimately challenge its power. Iran and Turkey are historical regional rivals.
At a closed-door meeting, Rouhani reportedly pressed Erdogan to hand over the recently captured Syrian Afrin enclave to Syrian regime forces. Ankara has in the past ruled out such a move.
Common ground on U.S.
But common ground was found in criticizing the U.S. role in Syria.
“Some big powers, particularly the United States, wanted terrorist organizations such as Daesh and al-Nusra to remain in our region as their tool so they can benefit from this,” Rouhani said at the summit’s press conference. “But big countries like Syria and Iraq destroyed this conspiracy with the help of friendly countries.”
Rouhani also mocked U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement hours before the summit that he wanted to “bring our troops back home” from Syria.
“The Americans say something different every day,” the Iranian president said at the press conference.
Putin also joined in criticizing Washington’s role in the region. For now, the U.S. appears to be providing strong new common ground for the three leaders to unite on, rather than focus on their considerable differences.
The presidents agreed to hold another summit in Tehran.