With US on the Sidelines, Russia, Iran and Turkey Seek Syria Solution

Russia, Iran and Turkey signaled their continued status as the most influential powers in Syria with the release of a joint statement late Thursday. It comes at the end of the first first full week of a new U.S. administration, with a third consecutive president faced with how to handle the Arab country's near decade-long crisis.

The trio's statement emerged following consultations on the sidelines of the fifth round of the Geneva-based peace process they oversee in efforts to establish a new unity constitution for Syria, made after meetings with delegations from Syria and U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen.

In it, they "reaffirmed their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic." Moscow, Tehran and Ankara also "stressed the need for all parties to respect these principles," according to a readout shared by the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

The three powers praised the ongoing Syrian Constitutional Committee, which they said should be allowed to work "without outside interference and the imposition of an external schedule."

Almost exactly three years ago, Russia, Iran and Turkey established themselves as guarantors for efforts to end the ongoing war in Syria as part of a trilateral format launched January 2017 in the Kazakh capital of Astana, since renamed Nur Sultan. Thursday's statement announced that the next upcoming Astana session would take place on Feb. 16 and 17 in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi.

Meanwhile, the United States remains diplomatically isolated on the sidelines, despite having hundreds of troops deployed in the war-torn nation.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) leave after a press conference following a trilateral meeting on Syria, in Ankara on September 16, 2019. While Russia and Iran support the Syrian government, Turkey backs rebels opposed to it. ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

As another regional milestone is reached, the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, which rocked the Middle East and North Africa, Syria's bloody conflict sits stalled in a bloody stalemate.

With major support from Russian and Iran, the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad has regained control of much of the country. The rebels and jihadis who attempted to overthrow him have been relegated to mere pockets of territory, many of them located across the northern border with Turkey, which sponsors opposition forces.

Russia has continued to back regular Syrian military units, including in clashes over the Islamist holdout of Idlib province, where Turkish troops have installed observation posts in rebel territory. Iran and allied militias also back the Syrian government, and have been targeted by Israeli airstrikes.

The U.S., for its part, has largely abandoned support for the insurgency, save for partnered fighters in the southwest desert garrison of Al-Tanf. As the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) spread nationwide in Syria, former President Barack Obama shifted assistance to another faction, the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who spearheaded a U.S.-led coalition-backed push to battle the self-styled caliphate in a campaign inherited by former President Donald Trump.

Trump took credit for the virtual defeat of ISIS, to which the pro-Syrian government axis also contributed. In a controversial move made without the permission of the Syrian government, he then assigned U.S. forces to guard oil and gas resources in the country's northeast.

Today, the Syrian Democratic Forces remain in control of roughly a third of the divided country as another U.S. leader inherits the issue. President Joe Biden, who served as Obama's vice president during the initial intervention in Syria, faces lingering blowback from past foreign policy decisions implemented there.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken faced tough questions regarding this history during his Senate confirmation hearing, which took place on the eve of Biden's inauguration last week.

Pressed by lawmakers, the new top diplomat said he felt "an obligation to determine from everything we've done, advocated, to take into account the results and to inform how we think about these problems going forward."

Blinken said he had done "a lot of hard thinking" about past decisions on countries such as Syria and Libya.

As the new administration recalibrates, however, clashes continue to erupt among the conflict's multiple parties, while simultaneously engaging in limited diplomacy within the country and abroad. But not all parties enjoy equal representation.

Although they are influential on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces have little voice or representation in the ongoing international peace processes, and have so far failed to reconcile with Damascus in negotiations brokered by Moscow. The two sides share a rivalry with Turkey-backed rebels, but they disagree over the degree of post-war autonomy to which the Syrian Democratic Forces-ruled region would be granted.

Washington continues to refuse to engage in an open and direct dialogue with the Syrian government. It seeks to hold Assad accountable for alleged human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons, which have been documented by the U.N. and other organizations. Damascus has demanded a total withdrawal of U.S. military presence, as have Moscow and Tehran.

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U.S. soldiers in Bradley tanks patrol an area near Syria's northeastern Semalka border crossing with Iraq's Kurdish autonomous territory, on Jan. 12. The U.S. military mission in Syria is officially predicated on the defeat of ISIS but troops were repositioned in October 2019 to maintain control of oil and gas resources. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian permanent representative to the United Nations Bashar al-Jaafari issued a condemnation of the U.S. and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces during a Friday session of the U.N. Security Council held at the initiative of Russia and Kazakhstan.

He alleged that "the terrorist organizations and the 'SDF militia' supported by the American occupation continue to commit crimes and violations against Syrian children," and blasted "terrorism, aggression, foreign occupation and unilateral coercive measures imposed by the United States and the European Union."

The Syrian government remains under heavy international sanctions, and has yet to recover its pre-war level of international recognition, having been suspended from the Arab League in the early months of the war. At the Syrian Constitutional Committee, however, Damascus holds significant clout.

The committee is divided among 150 delegates split evenly between three parties—the government, the opposition and U.N.-nominated civil society members. Successive rounds of talks among the three sides have yet to achieve a breakthrough, but Pedersen said during Friday's session he saw potential "commonalities" that could be reached among them, according to remarks sent to Newsweek.

He declined to go into details about the contents of his various meetings, but referred to "good meetings with my Russian interlocutors, also with Iran, also with Turkey."

But the name of one country was notably absent from his comments: the United States. When asked if he had interactions with the Biden administration, he had a simple response.

"We will get back to you when that has happened," Pedersen said.

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U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen looks on during a press conference following the conclusion of the fifth round of Syrian Constitutional Committee session on January 29 at the United Nations Offices in Geneva. "I know from my interactions with members of the Committee that, based on what we have heard so far, with the right mechanism in place it will be possible to identify what I call commonalities," Pedersen said. "But we need this mechanism in place." FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images