Just one day after President Trump suggested the US might withdraw troops from Syria, the respective leaders of Iran, Russia, and Turkey met in Ankara, Turkey to discuss efforts to bring stability to the embattled country.
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on Wednesday. A statement issued subsequent of the meeting by the three countries described their commitment to “speed up their efforts to ensure calm on the ground” in Syria. Since the political situation in Syria devolved into a civil war beginning in 2011, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed according to the UN. 5.5 million have fled the warring country creating Europe’s refugee crisis and another 6.6 million have been displaced internally.
Iran and Russia both stand as allies of the Syrian government headed by President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has supported Syrian dissidents. Assad has been accused time and time again of using chemical weapons on his own people, including civilians. Human rights organizations and locals have reported poisoning from chlorine gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin. In March, the UN called for a temporary ceasefire so humanitarian aid could be delivered to civilians in Eastern Ghouta where living conditions had become unbearable and life made impossible by a five week long government offensive. Government forces ignored the ceasefire, continuing its bombardment of the region.
During Wednesday’s meeting in Turkey, Erdogan, Putin, and Rouhani discussed ending the civil war in Syria as well as bringing stability to the war torn country. The three leaders committed to working together on reconstruction and aid efforts.
Despite the many ceasefire violations, the three leaders avowed their commitment to continuing ceasefires and upholding Syrian territorial sovereignty, while calling on the international community to bring humanitarian aid to Syria, something that has been near impossible to do amid the Syrian and Russian led air raids.
Wednesday’s meeting was the second summit held by the three leaders. In November, Erdogan, Putin, and Rouhani met in Sochi, Russia for similar high level talks on the crisis in Syria.
Although Turkey stands on opposite sides of the civil war to Iran and Russia, Turkish troops have recently run into US backed forces as they move eastward into Manbij from their stronghold in Afrin. Manbij is controlled by the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish majority militia enjoying US support. Ankara, who has long faced conflict with Kurdish peoples in Turkey, holds that the YPG are terrorist forces.
Erdogan said during the press conference, “I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the (YPG), starting with Manbij.” The Turkish president also underscored his commitment to continuing fighting ISIS militants who once controlled large expanses of Syria and Iraq.
Erdogan went on to say Turkey and Russia are discussing the establishment of field hospitals and bakeries, “Be it the Turkish armed forces, be it the Russian armed forces, (we) want to quickly establish a field hospital so that initial treatment can be provided.”
Wednesday, the Russian military also announced a deal brokered with rebels in the suburbs of Damascus. Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense made a deal with the rebel army, the Army of Islam, to evacuate the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta within the next few days. The rebels will head to rebel strongholds in the North. According to Russia, more than 3,000 rebels along with their families have already left the area since Sunday.
The meeting between Iran, Russia, and Turkey has led many to question whether US influence in the Middle East is waning. During a press conference with Erdogan and Putin, President Rouhani spoke of the US, saying Washington had “failed to topple the Syrian government.” He went on to say “They wanted to fuel insecurity in order to maintain their own interests but they have gained no success.”
Rouhani said he not believe the US will withdraw forces from Syria. Rather, he believes the talk of leaving Syria is a ploy for money, “One day they say they want to pullout of Syria … then it turns out that they are craving money,” the Iranian leader said. “They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”
During a press conference with Baltic leaders on Tuesday, President Trump said “As far as Syria is concerned, our primary mission in terms of that was getting rid of ISIS. We’ve completed that task and we’ll be making a decision very quickly, in coordination with others in the area, as to what we will do.”
The President underscored that the engagement in Syria has been “very costly for our country and it helps other countries a helluva lot more than it helps us.”
He went on to say, “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
According to a senior administration official, President Trump has decided to withdraw US troops from Syria, but has not given military leaders a firm timetable.
The administration has said the US troops would stay in Syria to fight the remaining Islamic State militants “our forces have not already eradicated.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders has indicated this would not be a long-term mission, saying ISIS is “almost completely destroyed.”
Sources inside the administration claim President Trump’s plan to bring US engagement in Syria to a “rapid end” has led to contentious debate between the President and his national security team, including CIA Director Mike Pompeo who has been nominated to fill Rex Tillerson’s role as secretary of state. US officials worry that a withdraw from Syria could permit the Islamic State to reassert itself and allow Iran or Russia to further assert themselves in the region.
In a meeting Tuesday with national security officials, President Trump said the US would not be paying for the reconstruction of Syria, instead he will look to wealthy Arab nations to lead stabilization efforts.
Turkey, Russia, and Iran plan to hold another round of talks in the future. The next summit will be held in Tehran.