ISTANBUL - News reports out of Turkey say Ankara and Russia have prepared a cease-fire agreement for all of Syria, but Russia is refusing to comment on the reports and rebel groups say no such official truce has been agreed on.
"There are two texts ready on a solution in Syria,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted Wednesday as saying on the sidelines of an awards ceremony in Ankara. “One is about a political resolution and the other is about a cease-fire. They can be implemented anytime.”
The Turkish state Anadolu news agency, citing an official source, said the cease-fire could go into effect as early as 2200 UTC, or midnight Wednesday; but, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, while confirming both sides were in constant communication over Syria, refused to comment on the cease-fire reports, saying he did not have "enough information."
Moscow and Ankara have been engaged in intense negotiations in the past couple of weeks. Earlier this month, the two sides brokered an agreement for a cease-fire and evacuation of refugees from the rebel enclave in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Last week, the Turkish, Iranian and Russian foreign ministers met in Moscow for talks on Syria. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Cavusoglu spoke twice by phone this week with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Russia and Turkey back opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, but analysts say they have come to recognize the importance of one another to resolving the conflict. “These efforts are significant, but what will really determine their real significance is what results they bear,” cautions political columnist Semih Idiz of Al Monitor website. “We saw with the evacuation in Aleppo it bore some results. If the cease-fire does work, it will become a very important diplomatic track for Syria.”
A senior Turkish Foreign Ministry official, speaking under customary condition of anonymity, confirmed that Ankara has been holding meetings with Syrian rebel representatives. A Syrian rebel official, quoted by a news agency, said those meetings are expected to continue in the coming days.
Terrorist groups excluded
Ankara and Moscow have stated that terrorist groups will not be covered by any cease-fire; but, analysts warn a potential key stumbling block remains over the designation of which rebel groups are considered terrorist organizations. “There are definitions that don't match. Russia has not openly declared the Syrian Kurdish group the YPG a terrorist organization, which Turkey calls a terrorist group,“ said columnist Idiz. “On the other side, there are constant allegations that Turkey has some kind of links with groups that Russia considers as terrorist organizations.”
The role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad too is a likely obstacle. “The whole world knows it is not possible for there to be a political transition with Assad,” Cavusoglu said. “We also all know that it is impossible for these people to unite around Assad.” That stance is strongly opposed by Moscow, which insists the Syrian people should decide who rules them.
Tuesday, Lavrov said Russia, Iran and Turkey had agreed that the priority in Syria was to fight terrorism and not the removal of Assad's government.
Ankara has suggested if the planned Syrian cease-fire does take hold, the Syrian government and opposition groups would be present in a scheduled meeting to be held next month in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, with Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking in support of the Kazakhstan meeting Tuesday, appeared to sideline United Nations efforts in Geneva. ”Unfortunately, Geneva came up empty. How many meetings were held? And no results were obtained," Erdogan said.
Washington too faces being sidelined. While Turkey and the United States are NATO allies, differences over the Syrian civil war have hurt relations. Erdogan on Tuesday accused Washington of arming Islamic State. “Ludicrous,” was the response by U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner to the accusation.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara issued a statement rebutting the allegations. "The United States government is not supporting Daesh," the embassy said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. The United States "did not create or support Daesh in the past. Assertions the United States government is supporting Daesh are not true."