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Iran, Russia and Turkey 'agree steps to de-escalate tensions' in Syria's Idlib

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Iran, Russia and Turkey 'agree steps to de-escalate tensions' in Syria's Idlib
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The leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey vowed on Monday to implement "concrete steps" to de-escalate the situation in Syria's Idlib province and facilitate the return of refugees.

But one expert told Euronews the summit was "hollow" because of the trio's "continued divergences [over their respective goals]".

Iran's Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Ankara to discuss the peace process in Syria.

In a joint statement released after the summit, they described themselves as "alarmed" about the risk of further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Idlib and said that they'd "agreed to take concrete steps to reduce violations".

They also "highlighted the need to facilitate [the] safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their original places of residence in Syria" and called on the international community "to increase humanitarian assistance to all Syrians throughout the country without preconditions".

'Fundamental divisions'

But while the three countries praised their partnership, Julien Barnes-Dacey, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), described the summit to Euronews as "hollow" and said Syria is to remain "broken" for a long time to come.

"These three countries have been meeting for several years now as part of the Astana format and I think there was initial progress on some security dimensions of the conflict but the convergence between them is being increasingly challenged by what's happening on the ground," he explained.

The three countries are involved in the conflict but on opposite sides with Tehran and Moscow backing Bashar al-Assad's regime, while Ankara and Western allies support rebel groups.

"You have quite a fundamental division between the different sides and the summit didn't seem to make any headway on addressing those differences and actually moving the situation towards an outcome whereby Idlib could actually be stabilised in any meaningful way," Barnes-Dacey said.

3.6 million refugees

Among the main points of contention is the fact that Russia wants Turkey to rein in Islamist militant groups while Ankara wants Moscow to force the Syrian regime to stop its military advance on the north-western province of Idlib, nowt the country's last rebel-held stronghold.

Turkey, which is hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, also wants the creation of a "safe zone" along the 300km of its shared border with Syria in order to return refugees to the war-torn country.

But, had the three countries agreed on meaningful steps, the Syrian regime — who did not take part in the summit — could have refused to acknowledge them.

"The clear dynamic you see at play over recent months in Russia's inability to impose a settlement and concessions on the regime" whether on the question of refugee returns or reconstruction, the ECFR expert stressed.

"This is essentially a regime that wants an absolute victory and is unwilling to play ball with any settlement that forces it to make compromises," he added.

$400 billion

Officially, the regime has said it welcomed returns but has obstructed them with "burdensome paperwork" and reconstruction efforts have so far been concentrated on areas that were loyal to the regime.

Returnees also face the prospect of having nothing to return to. The World Bank estimated earlier this year that the eight-year conflict had destroyed about one-third of the country's housing stock and half of the health and education facilities.

It also calculated that between 2011 and 2016, the cumulative Gross Domestic Product (GDP) loss stood at $226 billion (€205 billion). Estimates on the cost of rebuilding the country range from $250 to $400 billion (€227-€363 billion) while the entire 2018 government budget stood just under $9 billion (€8.1 billion).

The West sees reconstruction as the one lever it can pull to extract concessions but the regime is unlikely to agree to any.

"The Russians, Iranians and the regime want the West to accept the de-facto victory of the regime on the ground and want the West to legitimise that through international financial support," Barnes-Dacey said.

"The Europeans and the West aren't prepared to go down that track and so the only way whereby we're going to see any reconstruction support is if the regime enters a serious political process, something that it won't do because it fears that it will lead to its unravelling.

"The regime's priority is maintaining its own survival and it's willing to live with a broken Syria if that's the price for it," he added.

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