The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are meeting in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi Thursday to discuss the conflict in Syria for the first time since the United States announced its troop withdrawal.
Although the Kremlin hasn't divulged details, a number of observers say questions about the strategic implications of a U.S. pullout and differences between Moscow and Ankara on a political settlement in northern Syria are likely to predominate.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Monday made an unexpected visit to Ankara, where he met with Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar to resolve several issues ahead of the so-called Astana trio gathering — particularly recent developments in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, which borders southern Turkey.
WATCH: Russia, Turkey, Iran Discuss Syria's Postwar Future
Russia and Turkey cut a deal in September to establish an Idlib demilitarized zone to avert a Syrian government offensive, but the agreement was imperiled last month when al-Qaida-linked Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham militants took control there from Turkish-backed rebels.
While Russia and Iran are close allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey, like the United States, supports differing Syrian rebel factions.
Earlier this week Turkey and Russia jointly called for “decisive measures” to retake control of Idlib, though the statement contained no specifics.
Turkey’s foreign minister recently said Ankara might agree to a limited Russian-backed Syrian offensive to seize Idlib, but that would prove a strategic setback for Ankara, which seeks to capitalize on the U.S. troop withdrawal by retaking oil-rich northeastern provinces held by Kurdish fighters, whom Ankara considers terrorists.
Turkey’s long-term plan to create a buffer zone on the Syria-Turkey border, which has long been bolstered by the U.S. forces, would now require Russian support to enforce.
In the Idlib region where Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham has expanded its reach, any kind of massive military assault would likely mean large-scale civilian casualties and a refugee exodus into Turkey.
On the premise that an unstable Syria will only increase migrant flows to northern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin began soliciting postwar reconstruction investment from European counterparts in late 2018.
Rebuffed by European leaders who are unwavering in their conviction that Syria’s estimated $250 billion postwar reconstruction bill belongs solely to Assad, Putin, according to Oxford University analyst Samuel Ramani, has been looking to Saudi Arabia and China as potential investment partners, a move that would put Moscow at financial odds with Tehran, with whom it is militarily partnered in Syria.
“Concerns about competition between Russian and Iranian businesses involved in the reconstruction of Syria came to a head in February 2018, when Moscow beat out Tehran for a major 50-year deal in Syria’s phosphate industry,” he recently wrote in a think piece for the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
Although their mutual interest in safeguarding Assad’s rule may allow Tehran and Moscow to see past financial differences throughout the Sochi talks, he wrote, “tensions could flare up between Russia and Iran once their joint military operations in Syria come to a close.”
Senior Iranian figures last week called Syria a top foreign policy priority and a situation where American troops should have no role whatsoever.
On Sunday, Tehran’s Deputy Defense Minister Reza Talai-Nik warned that “all U.S. bases there are within the range of our cross-border weapons, and if these fail, we’ll strike them from within Iran,” according to a report by the semi-official Tasnim News Agency.
Moscow as sole broker
As the Astana trio impatiently awaits a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria, some observers say the absence of American boots on the ground may prove a complicating factor for Moscow, which has long sought to assert itself as a broker of global affairs.
“The first question in Sochi is likely to be, who replaces the American presence?” said Alexey Malashenko of the Moscow-based Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute. “And here, there is a misunderstanding between Russia and Turkey, because Turkey has repeated several times that this American place must come to be occupied by Turks, and Russia is against this. So, from that point of view, I think the meeting in Sochi will be very, very difficult for both of those countries.”
Asked if the Astana leadership is even confident in White House plans for withdrawal — President Donald Trump’s statements on the U.S. pullout, which contained no timetable, have been contradicted by members of his own Cabinet — Malashenko said it doesn’t matter.
“Regardless of the specifics, just the possibility of an American withdrawal creates additional problems for Russia,” he said. “In the Kremlin they constantly speak about America as an adversary that creates problems in the Middle East. But if Americans withdraw, what will Russia do? Because for Putin and the Kremlin, the situation with the American presence was at least more or less clear. Now this situation is becoming more and more unclear by the day.”
In his assessment, a sustained U.S. presence would only benefit the Kremlin.
“Maybe it’s a paradox, yes, but I think that’s the case,” he said, adding that a U.S. pullout also leaves Moscow to act as an on-the-ground arbiter between Iran, Syria and Israel.
“Before last year we spoke a lot about the multipolar situation of Tehran, Ankara and Moscow,” he said. “But now it seems that triangle is becoming more and more fragile.”
Putin approval ratings in the balance
Russia’s ability to stabilize Syria in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal also has potential consequences for Putin’s domestic approval ratings, which have been at a low point since late 2018.
Thursday’s summit will start just three days after a survey released by Moscow’s independent Levada Center polling organization showed that more than 50 percent of Russians say top officials are lying to them about the true state of affairs in the country.
Less than a week ago, Reuters published an investigation alleging that the Kremlin covered up mass casualties on the ground in Syria at a time when it is expanding its military activities in the Middle East and Africa.
The Higher School of Economics in Moscow recently published data showing that disposable income has decreased since 2014 and is predicted to drop further this year, which marks the fifth anniversary of U.S. and European Union sanctions resulting from Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Several rounds of negotiations over recent years have failed to end the fighting, which has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 people, displaced millions, and devastated many historic sites across the country.
President Trump has received criticism from Republicans, Democrats, and some foreign officials for what they have called a hastily planned withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops, with many saying it leaves Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turks and hands a victory to Russia and Iran.
Turkey has threatened to attack the United States’ Kurdish allies fighting Islamic State militants in Syria. In January, Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if Ankara attacks the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
Thursday’s talks will be 12th conference organized by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, including nine held in Astana. The trio last met in November.