Leaders Of Iran, Turkey And Russia Meet In Summit Over Syria

Apr 4, 2018
Originally published on April 5, 2018 6:50 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey are in Ankara today for another round of talks about the Syrian conflict. Violence has not ended despite a partial ceasefire agreed to. The United States, we should say, is not part of these talks. And President Trump is now saying he may withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Let's talk through all of this with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's in Istanbul.

Good morning, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So much to discuss here in this very complicated conflict. You've got a Turkish offensive in the northwest. You have the Syrian regime attacking rebels in eastern Ghouta. I mean, what exactly are these talks focusing on?

KENYON: Well, first of all, no one's predicting a breakthrough. We should note the United Nations still considers itself a key player in any finalizing talks on a political transition. But we do have heads of state, foreign ministers and military leaders in Ankara for these talks. They will have a lot to talk about. Shoring up the partial ceasefire is an important topic. Also, what happens next to these de-escalation zones? They were created in previous rounds.

Turkey, for instance, says it's got eight observation points already up in Idlib province in the north, but that's where a lot of these rebel fighters who make deals with the regime wind up going. That's where these latest busloads of fighters and their weapons are heading now, from eastern Ghouta up to Idlib. So that's likely to be the scene of more attacks in the future if the past is any guide. And that's not good news for Turkey because they're the nearest border from Idlib.

GREENE: Well, and then we have this news from here in the U.S., President Trump making these comments about a decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. It sounds like he may have caught his own Pentagon by surprise. So we'll have to see what exactly this means. But words matter. He said this. So what - how has that been taken there?

KENYON: Well, it is a new wrinkle to consider. I mean, you could say that Trump has made similar comments in the past. He certainly campaigned on the idea of getting out of these conflicts. But this sounds much more imminent at a critical time. Russia and Iran would likely be quite pleased to see the U.S. pull out, and certainly so would the Syrian regime. Damascus thinks it's got the upper hand now. Turkey could take this - a U.S. withdrawal - as a green light to keep on attacking the Syrian Kurdish fighters in the north that it hates but the U.S. has been partnering with in the fight against ISIS. Trump's own advisers are warning him against a pullout, saying ISIS isn't defeated yet.

In a timely manner, Vladimir Putin is quoted just today as saying, oh, yes, ISIS is now defeated in Syria. But whatever Trump decides to do, he is already signaling the U.S. isn't interested in doing more in Syria and could pull out relatively soon. And that, unless things change on the diplomatic front, could keep Turkey moving closer to Moscow and Tehran if they seem to be the only ones left to deal with.

GREENE: Peter, I'm just struck by what you said about Vladimir Putin there talking about ISIS being defeated. I mean, is it a good time for Vladimir Putin to be involved in this diplomatic activity in Syria? Maybe it's a distraction from all the criticism he's been facing over the poisoning of that ex-Russian spy and his daughter in Britain?

KENYON: Well, it certainly has that feeling, doesn't it? I mean, this trip was planned in advance, but it does seem like an opportunity for the Russian leader to move away from this Sergei Skripal poisoning to other issues. Yesterday, Putin accepted a very warm welcome from Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They spent hours at a ground-breaking ceremony for Turkey's first nuclear plant. Russia is helping to build it. There is more going on here though than just Putin pivoting away from some bad news. Moscow also says it will sell a missile defense system to Turkey, one that can't be integrated with NATO weapons. Now, that's troubling to Western leaders, so we'll have to see how that plays out.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul this morning. Peter, thanks a lot.

KENYON: Thanks, David.

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