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Can the Astana process survive the US withdrawal from Syria?

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On February 14, leaders of the Astana process - Russia, Iran and Turkey - held a trilateral summit in the Russian Black Sea resort, Sochi, for the first time since US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw US troops from Syria last December.

Three issues dominated the talks: first, what should happen to the opposition-held Idlib province and the demilitarised zone; second, how the Astana process partners should respond to the US decision to withdraw from northeastern Syria without having their interests clash and their cooperation collapse; and third, how to move forward on the formation of a constitutional committee, which is considered a key step towards a political solution.

Taken together, these three issues constitute the biggest challenge to the Astana process since its inception two years ago.

For many years, Russia, Iran and Turkey were bitter rivals in the Syrian civil war, supporting different sides in the conflict. Russia and Iran backed the Syrian regime, providing military, financial and political support, while Turkey assisted the Syrian opposition and provided a safe haven for its political and military leadership.

The relationship between Turkey and Russia, in particular, reached its lowest point in November 2015 when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet near its border with Syria. Relations improved, however, when both Iran and Russia condemned the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, expressing sympathy for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who felt increasingly ostracised by his Western allies.

Rapprochement with Russia enabled Turkey to launch its first large-scale military operation inside Syria called Euphrates Shield in August 2016, wherein Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition factions recovered more than 2,000 square kilometres from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) on the western bank of the Euphrates near the Turkish border. The fall of Aleppo, which came a couple of months later, allowed Russia and Turkey to identify common interests in Syria. This led to the launching of the Astana process in January 2017, which Iran joined later.

In 2017, Astana allowed for the establishment of the so-called de-escalation zones in four major areas of conflict........

© Al Jazeera