Putin Sees ‘Real Chance’ to End Syria War at Talks With Iran and Turkey

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  • Putin meets Rouhani, Erdogan days after surprise Assad visit
  • U.S. seen on sidelines as Russian military gains cement Assad

How Putin Became the Symbol of Russian Power

Russian President Vladimir Putin said there’s a “real chance” to end the 6 1/2 year civil war in Syria as he secured backing from his Turkish and Iranian counterparts for a peace initiative that’s likely to keep his ally Bashar al-Assad in power.

Putin’s summit talks with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday came just two days after he hosted Assad in a surprise visit. The Russian leader also spoke to U.S. President Donald Trump and leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt as the Kremlin rallies international support for its diplomatic drive.

“The militants in Syria have been dealt a decisive blow and a real chance has appeared to bring an end to many years of civil war,” Putin said, adding that a political settlement in Syria is now the “strategic task.” The three leaders discussed Assad’s commitment to a political process including a new constitution and the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections, Putin said.

Putin is taking the dominant role in efforts to end the bloody conflict after a Russian military campaign since 2015 succeeded in rescuing Assad against a range of armed foes including jihadists and rebels supported by the U.S. and its allies. That has left the U.S., which under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama pushed for Assad’s ouster, on the sidelines.

Differences Remain

The new U.S. administration says it still doesn’t see a future for the Syrian leader but isn’t making his departure a precondition for the talks aimed at securing an end to the civil war that has killed 400,000 people and displaced millions more.

The political process “won’t be easy,” said Putin. “It will require compromises and concessions from all sides, including the Syrian government.”

While few concrete details emerged, Putin said after the talks that Iran and Turkey supported Russia’s proposal for a peace conference in Sochi involving the Syrian government and opposition groups.

There still remain differences between the leaders at the summit. Turkey, which had long sought Assad’s ouster, now is seeking a freer hand to fight Kurdish forces in Syria, who have been instrumental in the defeat of Islamic State. Iran, meanwhile, is seen as unwilling to accept any compromise that could weaken Assad’s authority.

The three presidents discussed the participation of the Kurds at the Sochi conference, which has to be “inclusive,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters after the talks. Turkey denounced an earlier Russian invitation to the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which the government in Ankara regards as an ally of Kurdish separatists in its country that officials have branded as terrorists.

‘Right Direction’

While Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted from inside the meeting room that the “historic summit” was moving in the right direction to help the Syrian people “finally secure a just and lasting peace,” Rouhani said the Syrians won’t allow foreigners to interfere in their domestic affairs.

Highlighting continuing tensions over the conflict, Zarif made an apparent dig at a meeting between Trump and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz in May by also tweeting that there’s “no need for empty words or gimmicks -- including glowing orbs -- when you’re busy actually working for peace and against terror.”

In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, Syrian opposition groups also met Wednesday to discuss forming a single bloc to negotiate with Assad. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told state-run television that the kingdom would support the Syrian opposition groups to “emerge united” from the Riyadh meeting. 

Still, there was no sign of an immediate breakthrough in agreeing on a unified platform including factions close to Moscow, which oppose any demand for Assad’s exit.

Russia, while backing Assad, is likely to insist he accepts a new constitution that strips away some of his powers, said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

“In any case he will remain in power but he will be a very much weakened Assad,” Nader said by phone.

— With assistance by Donna Abu-Nasr, Alaa Shahine, and Golnar Motevalli

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