Pieraccini is an independent freelance writer and political expert based in
Milan, Italy. He specializes in international affairs, conflicts, politics, and
strategies. He has covered conflicts in Ukraine, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
The following is the full text of the interview:
question: Turkey recently rejected Syrian government accusations that it is not meeting its obligations under an agreement to create a demilitarized zone around the insurgent-held Idlib region, saying the deal was being implemented as planned. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem had said that Turkey appeared unwilling to implement the deal. What is your opinion about the comments and the future of the Idlib province, which with adjacent areas is the last stronghold of insurgents?
Pieraccini: The situation in Idlib remains frozen in terms of fighting and any government advances in terrorist-controlled areas. The de-escalation zone agreement between Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria has as its sole purpose the avoidance of a larger conflict involving these very countries attempting to drive terrorism from Syria and such countries as the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that have been financing and arming militants in Syria over the last seven years.
The words used by Walid al-Moualem do not surprise those who have been following the aggression against Syria over the last few years and know very well Erdogan's personal position on the matter. Erdogan's ambition is to recreate the Ottoman Empire, and this aspiration has guided Turkey's foreign policy over the last several years, serving, in the end, only to lead the Arab country to a dead end. Idlib contains tens of thousands of militants who have no intention of abandoning their fight against the Syrian people and Bashar al-Assad. It is an illusion to believe that Erdogan or Saudi Arabia can (or would want to) control these terrorists and direct them towards the path of moderation.
This ambition leaves one amazed at its scale as well as its lack of understanding of the general dynamics in the region. Erdogan is currently playing a very complicated game in Syria and Idlib. On the one hand, he needs to cooperate with Iran and Russia to maintain the ceasefire, thus avoiding the danger of government troops advancing into Idlib and pushing tens of thousands of militants into Turkey. On the other hand, Erdogan needs to nourish the dreams of glory for the militants in Idlib, who are disappointed by the outcome of the war but are reluctant to return home through Turkey. At the moment, the situation in the province remains frozen; that is at least until the next summit between the United States and Russia scheduled for November 11 in Paris.
question: A four-way summit on Syria recently ended in Turkey’s Istanbul without any major breakthrough. In a joint communique following their meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin called for "an inclusive, Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political process" and said conditions needed to be created for the safe and voluntary return of refugees. The comments came as the summit was not attended by any Syrian groups. What do you think about the summit?
Pieraccini: This summit represents quite a novelty in terms of those attending, namely the two European countries of France and Germany together with Russia and Turkey. The summit represents a desperate attempt by Berlin and Paris to continue to try and have influence in the Syrian process, although both countries are now irrelevant to the future of the Arab country. Macron and Merkel would also like to steer the reconciliation process towards the Geneva talks under the auspices of the United Nations rather than the Astana summit that involved Iran, Turkey and Russia. The summit represents a new diplomatic success for the Russian Federation, in the wake of the meetings organized in Sochi with the Syrian opposition.
The summit with the two European countries represents a transition phase during which time the four parties can confront each other to present their concerns and desires. For France, and especially Germany, the issue of refugees and fighting terrorism is a matter of primary importance, especially in relation to the search for a domestic consensus on immigration and counter-terrorism policies. In this sense, Turkey and Russia above all have everything to gain in terms of international visibility linked to the ongoing diplomatic process.
The absence of Syrian representatives at the summit shows that the Russian Federation has a broad mandate to represent the interests of Damascus in negotiations with international partners, highlighting the trust and personal understanding between Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s sovereignty belongs to the Syrian people, and nobody intends to question this principle, especially Putin, who has made the defense of the national interests of his country a cornerstone of his presidency.
question: Iran, Russia, and Turkey - the three guarantor states of de-escalation zones in Syria - have held several rounds of peace talks in Kazakhstan’s Astana and elsewhere to help end the conflict in the Arab country. The fourth round of those talks in May 2017 produced a memorandum of understanding on de-escalation zones in Syria, sharply reducing fighting in the country. What is your assessment of the parallel talks between the three countries on the Syrian crisis and Tehran’s role in the peace process?
Pieraccini: The role of Iran and Russia in Syria has been paramount. The Russian Federation mainly relies on six means of assisting its Middle Eastern allies: through aerospace and naval forces, missile strikes, air defense, electronic warfare, and diplomacy. For Iran, the situation is different, as the Islamic Republic contributes a great deal in relations to land operations and ground troops that directly fight against militants in Syria. Without Iran and Hezbollah's contribution, Damascus would hardly have achieved the progress seen so far.
The strength of the Iranian and Russian duo, in addition to sharing tasks equally in terms of military assistance, is in having the strong ability to mediate complicated situations with numerous actors. Through the Astana summit, Moscow and Tehran were able to place strong pressure on Turkey that allowed them to obtain the best possible conditions for Syria and its people. The creation of the de-escalation areas was a temporary measure that allowed Russia, Iran and Syria to organize troops and priorities, reorienting the country's liberation strategy against terrorism. It worked amazingly well, with Idlib remaining within about 12 months the only significant de-escalation area yet to be liberated from the scourge of terrorism.
Thanks to the combined military and diplomatic efforts of Iran and Russia, Damascus can now begin thinking about the necessary reconstruction of the country. And it here where the role of the People's Republic of China will be of crucial importance for the future of Syria and the region.