Russia, Turkey say they intend to halt civil war in Syria

The 2 countries, together with Iran, aim to act as guarantors for an expanded ceasefire

MOSCOW • Turkish and Russian diplomats have declared their intention to halt the civil war in Syria, showing no signs of a rift in their warming relationship the day after the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara in a brazen shooting.

A tripartite conference held in Moscow on Tuesday with Iran was hailed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as a way to "overcome the stagnation in efforts on the Syrian settlement".

The comment was a dig at Washington, which was absent from the meeting despite its own involvement in the Syrian conflict.

But the show of solidarity could not mask underlying frictions between Russia and Turkey over the war in Syria, which the assassination of Mr Andrei Karlov had brought to the fore.

The shouts of the 22-year-old Turkish assassin, who invoked the carnage in Aleppo, echoed the anger expressed by many Turks over the course of the five-year-old civil war. He had shouted "Don't forget Aleppo" as he pulled the trigger.

Russia, a stalwart ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, has thrown its military weight behind the Syrian government, and launched its own punishing air raids on rebel-held areas.

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin work to effect a ceasefire there, the two leaders face very different stakes.

For Mr Putin, Syria holds mostly geopolitical meaning and helps Russia project power while keeping a foothold in the Middle East. He has cast Russia as a protector of legitimate leaders against the turmoil of rebellions, and criticised the US for supporting Mr Assad's opponents.

But Russia, which has faced Islamist-led revolt in the North Caucasus, is aware that its actions in the Middle East could bring reprisals. Mr Putin on Tuesday called on his security and intelligence services to take extra security measures inside and outside Russia.

Mr Erdogan, on the other hand, presides over a country tangibly shaken by the war across its border, which has brought millions of refugees into Turkey, as well as the rising threat of militant attacks.

For most of the conflict, which began in 2011, Mr Erdogan was the Syrian rebels' most vociferous advocate. But the rapprochement with Russia has signalled a shift towards a settlement that might keep Mr Assad in power.

In the Russian capital on Tuesday, Russia, Turkey and Iran issued a statement - which Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu called the "Moscow Declaration" - calling for an expanded ceasefire for which the three countries would act as the guarantors.

"Iran, Russia and Turkey are ready to facilitate the drafting of an agreement, which is already being negotiated, between the Syrian government and the opposition, and to become its guarantors," the declaration says.

The three countries "have invited all other countries with influence over the situation on the ground to do the same". Mr Shoigu said the participating countries would be able to make a difference in Syria. He said: "All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure. None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground."

In a further effort to cement his influence on the Syrian peace process, Mr Putin has said he and Mr Erdogan are trying to organise a new series of negotiations - without the involvement of the US or the United Nations - in Kazakhstan.

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2016, with the headline 'Russia, Turkey say they intend to halt civil war in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe