Analysis

After Victory, Putin Steps Into Syrian Minefield

Caught between a stalling U.S. pullout, Israeli 'alliance' and Idlib militias, Russian president finds his monopoly over Assad's resurgence may require some flexibility

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Sunday, April 28, 2019
Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin can indeed credit himself with an important military accomplishment after transferring control of most of Syria’s territory to Syrian President Bashar Assad, but it seems this diplomatic minefield is presenting new and unexpected challenges for him that could erode the military achievements.

The diplomatic plan Russia drew up looks, on its face, to be orderly and logical. According to the plan, Russia was already meant to be withdrawing some of its forces from Syria; resolving the question of dismantling the rebel forces in Idlib province through diplomatic means, primarily through Turkey; convening a committee to formulate a constitution, whose principles have already been written by Russian advisers; setting a date for elections and starting to rehabilitate the country. The elements of this outline had already been agreed on by Iran, Turkey and Russia during a summit last September and had been accepted by Assad and some of the rebel organizations.

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But things started to go wrong when, in December, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he planned to withdraw his forces from Syria, and then didn’t implement that decision. A deep gap between Trump and Turkey emerged over the protection of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Although Trump agreed to set up a security zone in the Kurdish area of northern Syria, apparently 32 kilometers deep, he demanded that European forces monitor and patrol the region, while Turkey insisted that its forces carry out the task. Until this issue is resolved, the withdrawal of U.S. forces will be delayed. The two sides are still trying to work out a compromise that will be acceptable to the Kurds.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2018.
Mikhail Klimentyev,AP

Both Russia and Syria object to giving Turkey control over northern Syria, but at the same time they are demanding that Turkey implement the agreement over dismantling the armed militias in Idlib province, particularly the forces of Nusra Front (now called the A-Sham Occupation Front). This agreement was meant to prevent a broad Russian-Syrian attack on the province, keeping with Turkish demands. However, Turkey has not upheld its commitment to break up the militias and Russia has warned that its patience is wearing thin.

Any battle over Idlib province, which is home to three million civilians and some 50,000 armed militiamen, would mean a new wave of refugees fleeing into Turkey, which is already hosting more than 3.5 million refugees. Without a solution to the Idlib issue, Assad’s regime will not be able to restore its control over all parts of Syria, and all of Russia's planned diplomatic steps will also be delayed.

Another problem is the lack of an agreement to appoint a constitutional committee that is meant to operate under UN auspices. Last Friday the 12th round of talks in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana (now known as Nur-Sultan), ended without results. The main point of contention is the makeup of the teams that will deal with wording the constitution, since Russia is interested in the greatest possible representation of the opposition alongside representatives of the Assad regime, while Turkey opposes Kurdish participation and Assad objects to some of the opposition groups.

Iran, for its part, is seeking to preserve its influence in Syria now that Russia has seized economic control of the state’s resources, like its oil and gas fields, whose development rights have been sold to Russian firms, and Tartus Port has been leased to Russia for 49 years. This economic struggle has intensified given what Iran calls the plot between Russia and Israel to force Iran out of Syria. Iranian analysts point to Russia’s granting Israel a green light to attack Iranian targets, Russian restraint after Trump recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel, and recently the release of two Syrian prisoners in exchange for the body of Sgt. Zachary Baumel as evidence of an Israeli-Russian “alliance” targeting Iran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Moscow, April 8, 2019.
Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

This Iranian interpretation of events (which has supporters in the Turkish regime as well), indeed plays into the hands of Israel, which looks as if it can influence not just America’s Middle East policy, but also Russia’s. But it isn’t clear that Moscow is pleased by this impression, especially when comes in the midst of diplomatic moves in Syria where it isn’t desirable for Russia to look as if it is following an Israeli agenda.

Russia ostensibly has a monopoly on managing the diplomatic process, but it’s a monopoly that needs maintenance and flexibility toward other players to be realized. For now, it seems that the millions of displaced people and Syrian refugees, like the plans for rebuilding Syria, will have to wait. Until there is an agreed upon, stable regime in Damascus, no significant donor country will be willing to inject the enormous capital needed for Syria’s rehabilitation.