Turkey says it’s now time for Russia to decide on its next move, and clarify if it’s a reliable partner or not as millions of Syrians flee air strikes in Idlib.

A view of trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, is pictured in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province, Syria, January 28, 2020.
A view of trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, is pictured in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province, Syria, January 28, 2020. (Reuters)

On January 23 2017, the key players of the Syrian war, Turkey, Russia and Iran, gathered in the Kazakh capital Astana to build on the existing ceasefire agreements. 

Three years later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called an end to the process in Astana, with an angry note: Ankara is losing patience with the Russian backed Syrian regime’s military assault in Syria's Idlib region.

"Currently, Russia is not abiding by Astana or Sochi," NTV quoted Erdogan as saying on his flight back from Senegal on January 29.

"The Astana process has fallen into silence now,” he said.

Nine years of peace talks: What happened?

Nine years of the conflict saw numerous peace talks between the parties of the Syrian war. All partly or fully failed.

Astana raised hopes in the sixth year of the war, at least for the start of a process moving towards a political solution, after the UN-brokered Geneva talks in 2012 couldn’t stop the violence with Syrian regime bombing the opposition-held areas in Syria. 

Coming at a period when the opposition’s hand was the strongest ever in the nine years of war, Geneva talks in 2012 concluded with a call for a political transition through the creation of a transitional governing body and the Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s removal during the process. The transition period never happened as Assad managed to consolidate his power with Iranian backing on the ground, and Russian intervention in support of the regime in 2015. 

Astana then brought the strongest opposition groups on the field together and made them sit with the regime for the first time since the beginning of the war. Brokers of the process were Turkey, Russia, and Iran, but Jordan and the US also attended the talks. If implemented, the process would have secured the implementation of an already existing ceasefire agreement brokered by Turkey and Russia earlier, and mark the beginning of a political process.

The Syrian regime’s lead negotiator Bashar Jaafari left the meeting early, as it failed to establish a common ground on the strengthening of a ceasefire agreement even before the talks ended. But the Astana trio still agreed on de-escalation zones in an attempt to reduce the violence. Although it worked for a short period of time in reducing the Russian and Syrian regime bombing in the opposition-held areas, its effect didn’t last. 

Later, Tehran, Ankara and Moscow started another peace process in Sochi, that neither the US nor the Syrian regime was invited to participate in. This time, the brokering parties of Sochi discussed the post-Daesh political order in Syria, as well as reducing violence in the country.

The battle against Daesh has always been a common ground agreed by the Astana trio and the US since the start of the talks. 

But while Turkey pushed for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), officially known as the Syrian National Army – an umbrella group for the armed forces opposing the Syrian regime – to fight against Daesh on the ground, the US chose instead to support the YPG, which was later called the SDF, to fight against Daesh. 

Considering the SDF to be a threat to its borders, Ankara often reminded the US of its promise that the areas captured should not be controlled by the group, which is dominated by the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US, the EU and Turkey. 

A Russian aerial campaign on opposition areas, now focused on Idlib where more than three million are currently facing a humanitarian crisis, has continued despite the dialogue.

What does the failure of Astana mean?

Since the first time Russia participated in talks with Turkey, Ankara has been complaining that Russia hasn’t been following the agreements made, as it continued its air strikes on opposition-held areas in support of the Syrian regime. 

Despite supporting opposing sides in the war, Russia and Turkey kept their partnership as guarantors of the peace talks for three years.

For Erdogan, who said the process was dead, now is the time when Russia needs to decide if it’s going to be a reliable partner.

Erdogan says now the Astana trio need to look at what they can do to revive the process.

"If we are loyal partners with Russia on this, they have to put forth their stance... Our wish is that Russia immediately makes the necessary warnings to the regime which it sees as a friend," Erdogan said, in a harsher tone than usual.

On Tuesday, Syrian regime forces entered and captured a major town in the south of Idlib city -- marking a significant advance for the regime. Turkey has 12 observation posts around Idlib and is expected to set up a new one in the south of the town of Saraqeb. A Turkish military convoy of 30 vehicles, including 12 armoured vehicles entered Syria on Wednesday, according to a UK-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

As the regime continues its advance, Turkey says it would retaliate against any attack on its observation points -- signalling a harsh response to the regime forces if necessary. 

A BBC report says Ankara’s strong message is aimed at triggering a Russian reaction to stop the violence. Ankara has been responding to mortar shells fired from Syria’s Aleppo to the Turkish controlled areas, the report also said.

Over a million Syrians have moved near the Turkish border due to the intense air strikes on Idlib, where Turkey has set up tents and begun building more than 10,000 houses for the displaced. A new refugee flow is both an economic and security concern for Turkey, as it already accommodates more than 3.5 million refugees - a record number.

US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said on Thursday that the assault had set "700,000 people who are already internally displaced on the move once again toward the Turkish border, which will then create an international crisis". 

Source: TRT World