Ahead of Erdogan-Putin meeting, Rouhani blames Israel, US for regional tension

As he leaves for tripartite summit on Syria, Iranian president says Washington and Jerusalem supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen war

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 4, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, September 4, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday blamed Israel and the US for tensions in the Middle East, in comments made ahead of a trip to Ankara for a tripartite meeting with his Russian and Turkish counterparts for discussions on Syria.

“Today, what is taking place in this region and has concerned many countries of the world is the result of erroneous plans and conspiracies of the United States,” Rouhani said, according to the Tasnim news agency. “We have declared time and again that regional issues must be resolved by regional countries and through dialogue.”

“If we want the establishment of real security in this region, a full stop must be put to acts of aggression by the US and provocative interventions by the Zionist regime. Otherwise we will witness the continuation of insecurity,” he said.

According to the news agency, Rouhani also claimed that Israel and the US are supporting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their military activities in Yemen, providing them with both weapons and intelligence.

Tensions in the region were exacerbated by the weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities, which the Tehran-backed Houthis have taken responsibility for while some in the Trump administration have directly blamed Iran.

Rouhani is slated to meet Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Turkish capital Ankara for their fifth summit on the Syrian conflict since 2017.

Iran and Russia have been staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has called for his ouster and backed opposition fighters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their joint press conference following the talks, in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in Sochi on September 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Alexander Zemlianichenko)

But with Assad’s position looking increasingly secure, Turkey’s priority has shifted to preventing a mass influx of refugees from Idlib in Syria’s northwest.

Turkey is concerned by the steady advance of Syrian forces into the region, backed by Russian airpower, despite a series of ceasefires.

Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib to enforce a buffer zone agreement struck a year ago with Russia to prevent a full-scale Syrian offensive. But the posts look increasingly threatened, with one of them cut off from the rest of Idlib when Syrian forces advanced last month.

Russian airstrikes have continued in the region despite the latest ceasefire between Ankara and Moscow on August 31.

“A large number of terrorists are still present in this zone… and fighters continue to fire on the positions of government forces,” Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said on Friday.

Low expectations

The Turkish presidency said the leaders would discuss the latest developments in Syria as well as “ensuring the necessary conditions for the voluntary return of refugees and discussing the joint step to be taken in the period ahead with the aim of achieving a lasting political solution.”

Moscow is keen to see progress on establishing a constitutional committee to oversee the next stage of the political settlement in Syria.

This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers search for victims from under the rubble of a destroyed building that hit by a Syrian government airstrike, in the northern town of Ariha, in Idlib province, Syria, July 12, 2019. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

That would give Putin a political win to add to its military victories, said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group. But she said expectations should remain low.

Even if they could agree on who will form the committee, “this leaves a crux of issues unaddressed for the future of the political process including the regime’s ability and willingness to undertake any kind of political reform,” Khalifa told AFP.

All three leaders are expected to hold one-on-one meetings before the summit, the Kremlin said. They will also hold a closing news conference with a view to presenting a joint declaration.

Meanwhile, Turkey has other concerns regarding Syria.

It has repeatedly threatened to launch a cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, whom it sees as allied to Kurdish militants in its own territory.

A picture taken on March 23, 2019, shows a fighter of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) flashing the V for victory sign in the fallen Islamic State group’s last bastion in the eastern Syrian village of Baghuz after defeating the jihadist group. (GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP)

That has strained Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States, which backs the Syrian Kurds as the main fighting force against the Islamic State group (IS).

The US has vowed to work with Turkey to clear Kurdish forces away from its border, but Ankara says progress has so far been “cosmetic” and it could launch an operation into Syria by the end of this month.

Turkey has conducted two previous offensives against IS in 2016 and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in 2018.

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