It’s hard to imagine a peaceful solution for Syria.
Since the vicious civil war there exploded into an international conflict five years ago, the country has seen more than 250,000 dead and at least 11 million displaced refugees in an escalating cycle of violence that seems to have no end in sight.
But in the last few weeks, there have been signs that the standoff between contacts between Turkish, Russian and Iranian officials have led to speculation that the countries are seeking an arrangement to end the Syrian conflict. Notably absent from the discussions has been the United States.
Following last week’s summit between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian president Vladimir Putin, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Ankara, where he met his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. Both men affirmed that their countries would collaborate over maintaining Syria’s “territorial integrity,” meaning they would oppose any Kurdish entity there.
On Monday, Turkish prime minister Binali Yıldırım expressed optimism that the regional states could find a political solution in Syria. He proposed a three-point road map that could lead in that direction: the defence of Syria’s territorial unity, including the prevention of Kurdish plans to impose a federal structure; a reconstitution of the Syrian state, but not on sectarian, ethnic or geographical foundations; and a return of refugees in the context of a clear-cut plan.
Despite the hopefulness, the path towards a settlement in Syria remains extremely complicated. For one thing, there is still no agreement on the future of president Bashar Al Assad. Mr Yıldırım’s comments on rebuilding Syria on foundations other than sect were specifically aimed at creating conditions for Mr. Al Assad’s ultimate departure from power. But Russia and Iran have kept their intentions much vaguer.
Nor has regional harmony been visible in Aleppo. Turkey reportedly armed the rebels heavily before their recent counter-attack in the city. This allowed them to break the siege of its eastern neighbourhoods and encircle regime areas.
Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and the apparently boundless parade of rebel groups and externally backed militias may finally be coming to a close.
And this time, the proposed resolution has nothing to do with the West.
While Europe and the United States continue to wring their hands in despair and ponder the chaos that their own intervention into Syria provoked, Russia, Iran and Turkey have been meeting quietly to seek an arrangement that would respect Syria’s territorial integrity (read, no Kurdish entity), reestablish a non-sectarian state and provide for the repatriation of the country’s refugee populations. The plan, which was ironed out by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and subsequently given a blessing by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is intentionally vague, offering no definitive answer to Assad’s political destiny.
In the past, Turkey (in opposition to Russian and Iran) has insisted that there can be no resolution to the Syrian conflict without the existence of Assad, but since making nice with Putin in St. Petersburg earlier this month (and having to make amends for having downed a Russian warplane over Syria last November), Erdoğan seems more inclined to bow to Moscow’s demands that the despotic ophthalmologist-cum-dictator finish out his term as president.
What the tri-national proposal does include is a blueprint for an expanded Syrian government that will reflect the country’s ethnic and religious diversity and will provide for Syrians — not foreigners — to determine the future of their own country.
Of course, each of these three countries has something to gain from the proposed peace process.
Tehran sees Damascus as an ally in holding back the mounting wave of Saudi-backed Sunnism that is grabbing hold in the Middle East, and Turkey is counting on the containment of the Syrian crisis to slow the flood of refugees into its territory and discourage Kurdish and Islamic State terrorism within its borders.
As for Russia, a peaceful solution to the war would not only cement Moscow’s status as the key political power in the region, but would also open the door for Putin to turn Syria’s Khmeimim airbase into a full-fledged Russian military facility.
But vested interests aside, the proposal is the first viable solution to the Syrian problem in more than half a decade, and considering the toll that the war has taken so far, it may be worth considering, even if it leaves the West high and dry in the Middle East.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]