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The Syrian civil war which started in 2011 was ignited by the fire of Arab spring, was “pacified’ by slaughtering of the resentful unemployed youth, who started a wave of an uprising to topple tyrannical leader Bashar Al Assad. His violent crackdown on protests created discontent among Syrian civilians resorting to violent means to dethrone him. Assad retaliated with civilian bloodshed. Amid this chaos, one of the most brutal terrorist organization Islamic State was a breathing space who skilfully managed to fill the power vacuum and captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria declaring its ‘Islamic State’ in 2014 as the world silently watched. As ISIS glorified war crimes, attracting like-minded western fighters to join the war of ‘Jihad’, many international actors waged war against ISIS. 

On one hand, where Iran and Russia were staunchly backing the president, USA and NATO were aligned with Kurdish People’s Protection Unit( YPG). Turkey a major player in the conflict, sided with Qatar and Saudi training the defectors from the Assad’s army which later established itself as a Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many divided international and domestic factions united indirectly to crash ISIS from all the sides which led to the significant loss of its expanded territory. But the fight was not over; there were dozens of rebel factions who are governing some pockets of Syrian territory. As Assad smoothly recaptured the Syrian territories, there are still regions that are out of his territorial sphere including the strategic Idlib province. 

Idlib province is a barricade that stands between the regime’s government and the military victory that will mark the end game of the 7-year devastating conflict. A north-western province in Idlib, the last bastion for rebels, currently hosts 1.5 million internally displaced refugees and has a population of 3.5 million people living under miserable conditions. Taking the crisis into account, UN had warned that an all-out offensive by the Russian, Iranian backed Assad regime will also pave the way for a humanitarian catastrophe. The pressure from the international community forced the major stakeholders Iran, Russia, and Turkey to carve out the political solution of the Idlib province during the fourth round of the Astana talks in Sochi on September 18 2018, calling for the establishment of the Idlib agreement.

Astana peace talks were started back in 2017 where Russia, Iran and Turkey continued to find a political solution for other rebel-held areas like Eastern Ghouta, Douma and Idlib Unfortunately for the Idlib (Sochi) agreement, only Russia and Turkey acted as guarantors while Iran showing a “ superficial thumbs up” for the agreement. According to the agreement, Idlib will be carved out as a demilitarized zone and the rebel forces will have to pull back the heavy weaponry including tanks, rocket launchers out of the zone till October 10. Also under the deal, the radical groups like Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham will have to ‘surrender’ or leave the zone till October 20, and to monitor the area Turkey, Russia will set up observation posts which will carve as redline for further escalations. Last but not least, the two major M4 and M5 highways will be reopened for traffic by the end of 2018.

Russia and Turkey, though acted as the “guarantors” for the province, their diversifying strategic aims and gains from the conflict could bring them at diplomatic loggerheads. Considering that an offensive in Idlib will not only take Idlib but also Turkey’s and Russia’s strategic ambition under the rubble of war, the deal was brokered between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey’s attempt to save the drowning ship of the Sochi Talks

First time ever Turkey would have cursed its geo-strategic location of serving as a connecting bridge between Europe and the Middle East. The proximity of Idlib province to the Turkish border has put pressure on Turkey to delay the offensive on Idlib as the wave of refugees will flow into turkey and eventually into Europe which is already bloated with a large number of refugees. It will also provide a safe passage to the insurgents enmeshed as civilians endangering Turkish and Europe’s security concern.  Hence to put a plug on the budding refugee crisis, Turkey’s efforts were at the epicentre of this deal. Another major challenge for turkey was to “convince’ Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham( HTS)to halt its escalation to avert the refugee flow into Turkey.

Turkey, a critical patron of the moderate rebel forces battling Assad had successfully consolidated FSA fighters and nearly 30,000 fighters under the umbrella of the National Liberation front, leaving Hayat Tahrir al sham, a former al Qaeda affiliate who has firmly denied dissolving in NLF. This stubbornness infuriated Turkey, and it designated HTS, as a terrorist organization in line with UN, USA and European powers. The group has long been wary of Turkey’s intention and is aware that they are using NFL as a pawn to replace them in a fight. Furthermore, by bowing down to the Turkish demand, HTS will lose their frontline fighters to the Hurass al-Din, an Al Qaeda affiliate splintered from HTS who are against the Idlib agreement. These internal divisions and struggle for power further complicate the already complex web of alliances in Idlib and makes it even more difficult for Turkey to act as ‘sheriff’ of the Idlib.

At the G20 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin quoted “The situation in Idlib worries us too. We see that the Turkish partners have not yet managed to achieve everything that has been planned but they are working.” Turkey wielded carrot and stick policy for the fighters, but it could not peel away the sympathetic factions to weaken HTS. The fight is now reaching the boiling point as Idlib is increasingly becoming a flashpoint between the Assad loyalists and the rebel forces even after signing a ceasefire deal. This is evident from a recent alleged chemical attacked in Aleppo by the rebel forces, leading to the air strikes by the Russian warplanes, which was a first intense escalation since Idlib truce went into effect on 17th September. These attacks undermine the fruitful future of the truce and also frustrate the Astana partners who see Turkish’s failure as an “intended call” to launch an offensive. Turkey can no more exploit its negotiations of withdrawal with the rebels as a bargaining chip to have more leverage over the control of Idlib. Nevertheless, Ankara has to attempt to save its drowning ship to be the playmaker of the last battle of Idlib.

Turkey has been constantly warning of a ‘bloodbath” in case of an onslaught and publicly endorsing the belief that the flow of refugees into Turkey is the sole reason for intervening in Idlib. The onslaught will not only be the final nail in the coffin of the Astana process but also for the Turkish’s paramount ambitions of curbing the Kurdish hegemony in the region. Assad’s full-fledged campaign would not distinguish between the ‘types of the rebel’ and would whitewash the Turkish ally Free Syrian Army under the NFL, who has been exploited as a pawn to capture the Kurdish Syrian province of Afrin. Turkey views YPG, as an armed the wing of outlawed Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party. The disbandment of the Free Syrian army after the offensive will deprive Turkey of its most needful ally and adorn Kurds with the golden opportunity to oust Turkey. In the military showdown in Idlib, the USA backed Kurds who were defeated, have silently decided to side with its long-term foe Assad crash its common enemy Turks and other radical forces hoping that it will either have semi-autonomy or a more say in the future political play.

Why is Russia not burning bridges with Turkey over its sluggish success of Astana talks?

The seven-year dragging conflict is characterized by the marriage of convenience pact of the various actors who shift alliances as the winds of war change. Turkey, a NATO member and a US ally initiated a trial lateral agreement with its ally’s favourite enemies Iran and Russia. It is also very interesting to see that Russia has not burned bridges with Turkey over its failure to adhere to the peace process and has given more time to negotiate with the opposition forces as a tool to retain its relationship with Turkey. With simmering tensions with the USA over the Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and USA’s alliance with Kurds, Russia’s decision to offer more time to Turkey to implement its strategy will prove to be a major juggernaut in bringing Turkey into the Russian Orbit. Further, Erdogan’s patience with Washington over Syria which involved a deal to clear the YPG forces from the town of Manbij seems to have worn thin. In such a scenario, Russia- Turkish strategy in sweeping the Kurds from the remaining Northern Province will give Russia an upper hand in the peace talks. For Russia, aligning with the Turks against Kurds is another excellent gambit which will covertly rein in USA’s plans to establish a permanent presence in northern Syria.

Furthermore, there have been innumerable instances out of which one such escalation created a spat between Moscow and Ankara; the downing of the Russian fighter jet by Turkey, but it did not impede their economic relations. The Turkish stream pipeline project which will carry Russian natural gas to Europe through Turkey and the defence deal of Russia’s S 400 missile system underline the Turkish Russian economic co-operation. A “diplomatic ditch’ by Russia to Turkey in Idlib will fraught their relations and forestall its humongous projects. Russia has to see the Idlib endgame through the spectrum of Turkey as losing Turkey as a partner in Syria would be very costly. If Russia and Assad ever conduct a joint operation in Idlib based on the latest chemical attack by the Idlib rebel forces inside the Assad held city in Aleppo, Turkey will see this as an invitation of war and knock down Russia in Idlib by meekly arming the moderate factions and extremist insurgents for resisting against the Assad offensive. So if Russia tries to outsmart Turkey, the offensive will come with heavy ramifications.

Russia’s diplomatic dilemma

Apart from the Turkish angle, protecting the throne of Bashar through “diplomatic dialogue’ is in Russia’s interests as it will be able to entrench its military might in Syria and challenge the US’S superiority in the region. But it's vital agenda also entails the return of refugees to Syria and the rapid restart of reconstruction efforts which can be only achieved with Europe‘s and US’s funding. The resurrection of Syria can be used as leverage for diplomatic normalization after Russia triggered world criticism due to its annexation of Crimea. The bottom line is Russia’s path of “vision” will witness a dead end due to the Assad’s incursion of Idlib

Russia’s intervention in Syria is a well thought and well planned “investment”. Russia extravagantly spent millions of dollars to dominate the skies of Idlib with its airpower to tilt the scales of war in Assad’s favour. As the war is reaching an end, it has earned military profits, now it’s time to reap the financial benefits of an investment in the form of vying for contracts for Syria’s reconstruction- which will likely include some of Syria’s least destructed oil reserves, mines, telecommunication infrastructure. As the war reaches the climax point, the absence of Russia’s full-fledged air power will result in Assad offering major exclusive contracts to Iran, who already has singed telecommunication deals and also pressed Assad to transfer agricultural lands in Syria which were left behind by the Syrian citizens who escaped the war. These lands can be used to shelter the Iranian backed forces which can penetrate its presence in the region.

If Russia pumps up the assault then it would be a farce of its own publically harboured agenda. Contrastingly, if it sidesteps the assault, the militants will keep targeting its strategic assets in Idlib under the pretext of reckless escalation, evident by the unprecedented attacks on Russia’s Hmeymim base. This will give a major blow to its military presence in Syria. Additionally, Moscow will succumb to injuries by its move of supplying S 300 missiles system to Syria after the accidental downing of its spy plane by Syria which was retaliation to an Israeli air strike. The radar of the system covers Israel’s northern space giving Syria’s proxy Iran to target its sworn enemy Israel. While Israel is a foe to Syria, it shares sound relations with Russia. This deal has opened a door of Israel’s animosity towards Russia who shared healthy relations with each and every player in the Syrian conflict. Russia, acting as “big brother” in the Syrian conflict cannot keep a check on Iranian aggression, given Iran’s cross-border hate chemistry in Syria, keeping the future of Israeli- Russian relations at stake. Taking all these repercussions into consideration, in the case of carnage, it depends on Russia to provide robust air cover, or to play a neutrality card by liming its support

Russia and Iran in Syria- The fault line speaks.

In a summit hosted by Tehran held on 7th Sept, Russia dismissed proposal of Erdogan for a complete ceasefire in Idlib and sided with Iran on its pro offensive approach that eagerly incited to launch military operation for its own selfish interests.  10 days later in Sochi, Russia flipped its card ditching Teheran and acted as guarantor along with Turkey to declare Idlib as a demilitarized zone. This is the same Sochi agreement which side-lined Iran, highlights how it has lost its status as an influential key player after Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 and made Russia a central player in the Idlib. Russia used the Iranian manpower to win the war for the Syrian regime and replaced the USA as a major actor in Syria’s future. Today also the media quotes how the Russian air cover paved the way for embattled Syrian regime’s victory, discrediting the death of the Iranian trained IRGC and Hezbollah fighters who waged on ground skirmishes on rebels. Ironically Russia has suffered material losses, but how will Iran recover the loss of 2,100 Iranian soldiers?  Iran overshadowed its predicament of getting excluded from the Sochi talks by hailing the ‘responsible diplomacy’ of its Astana Partners. This shows that the two don’t converge on Idlib’s situation.

Further, it is important to understand why Iran desperately wants an all-out offensive in Idlib.

The Iranian Israeli historical arch rivalry has become a hotbed of confrontation in southern Syria. The cross-border attacks between the two states have been rampant, destabilizing Syria, and have thrown the role of Iran’s military presence under criticism. Iran has to face the music for its expanding military foot-print to dominate the Middle East and to use Syria as a trade artery to supply its weapons to Israel’s arch-rival and Iran’s ally Hezbollah, with whom Israel has fought three wars and lost one in 2006. The first ever direct confrontation reached the boiling point when Iran’s trans- maximalist strategy of sending a drone by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Israeli airspace received retaliation by the Israeli strikes which shot down the drone and also targeted Iran’s T4 air base. Ultimately Iran had to pay a heavy price of this escalation as Israel expanded its air campaign against Iranian targets destroying their military personnel and assets deterring its aim of entrenching military presence in southern Syria.

Israel complained to Russia about Iran’s military peril who instantly ordered Iran to distance itself from the border of Israel to which Iran obeyed. In the face of Israel’s staunch anti- Iran posture and offensive, Idlib acts as a bulwark to Israeli attacks due to the far away reach from Israel and facilitates Iran to explore expansionist Turkish moves near the Syrian Border. The strategic depth of the region helps Iran to establish its military footprint. Russia maintained a neutral posture while not lambasting Iran and by affirming that Israel has the right to secure its borders. Once the last puzzle of Syrian Jigsaw is forcefully taken by Assad, Iran’s military will gain an upper hand in the region and enhance its maneuverer ability to spread its tentacles in the rest of Syria. After the Turkish control of northern Afrin  and Iran and Israeli hostilities in southern Syria, north-eastern control of  Kurds, Iran only has a ‘fresh chance’ to establish military bases only in Idlib after an  Assad’s clearing of “pesticides in the area”

Russia will just provide lip service to an offensive if the peace talks collapse, and bring Iranian forces at the forefront to lend support to the regime because restoring the regime is pre-eminent for Iran more than Russia as President Assad belongs to the Shia sect, bolstering Iran’s Shia vision of leading the Arab world.  While Iran is adapting to the brickbats for its aggressive military expansionism, around 6000 Russia forces flood on the Tartus naval base and Hmeymim air base in Syria, flexing its muscles in the Mediterranean Sea. Any Iran- Israel tensions might erode Iran’s military aims which will boost Russia’s defence hegemony in the region.  Another paramount reason for straying away from Iran and prioritizing Turkey’s goals is that Russia does not want to dig the grave for its major vision of Syria’s resurrection. As many as 400 billion dollars are needed, and the major chunk of funds will be funnelled from the USA and European powers only a precondition that Iran leaves Syria which is a dim possibility. But they will consider providing assistance if Iran’s military presence is undermined and hence Idlib agreement disguisedly acts as a golden opportunity to achieve this objective.

Assad regime’s future cards

Amid the chaos, Assad holds his cards close to his vest. But even if Assad and his Iranian allies are persuaded to limit the attack, he will assert control over all of Syria and will not accept Idlib remaining permanently out of his control as he can reassert his territorial sovereignty forcefully over the province. Now, that the escalation has reached the boiling point and HTS attacks are creating more havoc, Assad’s launch of ‘a counter-terrorism operation” will sever as perfect justification to its rebuff of the idea of de-escalation zone. Recapturing Idlib would be a strategic prize as Assad would gain control of trade critical M4 and M5 highway connecting Hama and Latakia provinces to Aleppo and Raqqa. Currently controlled by HTS, these highways act as financial lifelines which patron its notorious terror. Additionally, the checkpoints of Bab-Hal-Hawa crossing, bordering Turkey are covertly operated by HTS through which charities supply their life-saving aid to Idlib.  Middle East eye reported that HTS was collecting taxes from aid trucks crossing the border. Such earnings create a treasure of weapons chest to resiliently fighting the regime. HTS has hunkered down in Idlib. Ostensibly, in the long run, Assad’s regime strategic interest in integrating Idlib with Syria and in destroying the rebel hold will outweigh the risk of an assault. The further question to be asked is after ceding Idlib, will Assad provide political accommodation to the moderate rebels and spill cold water on their abhorrence or live up to the expectations of the west of murderous thug.

USA new diplomatic development turning the tables.

The uninvited western intervention spearheaded by the USA will also join in the Idlib theatre if Assad resumes to the use of chlorine attacks. This was evident from Trump’s tweet “slaughter in Idlib would make the USA very angry”. But this action is a distinct possibility after Trump’s Wednesday’s announcement of the unilateral withdrawal of 7000 troops from northern Syria within 24 hours as he rightfully said that ISIS has been “defeated”. Trump made a fool out of himself as this dangerous move erased the scope of having major leverage in Syria’s political future and tilted the Syrian war towards Russia who is now in the driver’s seat of Syria’s future, a major victory Russia nailed since the end of the cold war.

This decision came amid Erdogan’s threat of a Turkish incursion into the YPG controlled areas which would put US troops at risk. The two NATO partners' rocky relationship emerged due to the training and arming of the outlawed Turkish party PKK linked YPG force in northern Syria. This move gave Turkey’s incursion into the Kurd region, a green signal, leaving the Kurds internationally isolated. Followed by this move, Turkey gave its stamp of approval for a long -pending deal of US Patriot defence system as Russia was flirting with the idea of buying Russian S 400 missiles system. This gives and take policy brought an upward turn in the NATO partner’s relationships and might have put Russia’s move of igniting a fire between the two countries on the backburner. The “overtures’ on USA’s part might also are an awkward attempt to coax Turkey to abandon the Astana talks and re-join the UN and the USA backed Geneva talks, where US and other international powers decisions are likely to override  Iran and Russia’s interests.

US’s dumbfounded withdrawal of troop gave its rival Iran a “Christmas present” in the wake of sanctions, to “comfortably” capitalize itself in the north-eastern Kurdish region as the Kurds will turn to Assad to avert the Turkish onslaught. In the west, a military offensive in Idlib by Iran and Assad forces will turn Idlib into a springboard for Iran’s military ambitions. This has ruffled Israel’s feather that now has to individually deft tackle Iranian presence. Assad will get more confidence to launch a Blitzkrieg to recapture Syria as its leading foe is out of the war zone. Trump’s unprecedented bizarre blueprint shows that the business interests override the diplomatic interests. This is evident from his move of ditching Kurds for selling arms to Turkey.

Trump’s sudden decisions will now the change the face of conflict and lead to the shift balance of power in Syria’s northeast. In the northwest Idlib, taking current escalations into account, the question asked should be ‘when’ the offensive will take place rather than asking “whether”. The political peace efforts by UN-backed Geneva talks or Astana Talks failed to translate peace and de-escalation on the ground and made a mockery out of civilian suffering. There is an alarming need for a “united peace process” where not only the international actors but also the internal rebel factions and Assad regime have a say to decide on Syria’s future. This should take place before Assad gets frustrated and “channelizes” his anger by sweeping the Idlib territory, displacing and slaughtering thousand civilians and rebels. Any diplomatic efforts to reach to a political settlement after the bloodbath in Idlib will be a major fiasco on the part of the international community and cast doubt on the credibility of the peacemaking institutions like the UN. The latest key attempt to attain tangible progress for Syria’s future was the formation of a constitutional committee under the UN observation. But while the opposition asks for a new constitution to be drafted, Assad demands amendments to the same. Syrians, cling to a fragile hope that diplomacy can avert a blowout battle in Idlib. But the diplomacy at this stage is a stalemate, as the parties who have blood on their hands miserably failed to reach a ‘consensus’ pushing  Syria future faith into the whirlwind of bloody conflict. 

References:

Syrian Press calls for Idlib operation. (November 26, 2018). MEMRI

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After the Sochi agreement, HTS is facing internal divisions. (September 28, 2018). Aljazeera

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UN:  Major Idlib offensive could spark worst catastrophe of 21st Century. (December 26, 2018).  Arab News

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Iran signs deal to repair Syria's power grid. (September 13, 2017) Aljazeera

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Russia, Turkey and Iran reach agreement on Syria committee.  (December 18, 2018)  The Guardian

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Image Credit: Dawn

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Written By Mona Thakkar

Bachelors in Mass Media( Journalism). Middle East Politics enthusiast. The knowledge you seek, will later take you at peak.

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