Analysis

Russia Stepped on a Landmine in Its Attempt at Diplomacy in Syria

Syria’s expanding control over southern border areas, under Russian sponsorship, puts Israel in a serious dilemma

Rebels near Quneitra, Syria, not far from the Israeli border, June 2017.
Alaa Al-Faqir / Reuters

The extent of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence will really be tested at the end of January when the Black Sea resort of Sochi hosts one of the largest gatherings ever between the Syrian regime and opposition. The two sides will be seeking ways to keep the diplomatic process alive and solve the country’s seven-year crisis.

Russia faces a huge challenge. It may have skillfully managed its military tactics and secured President Bashar Assad against all attempts to oust him. It has kept the United States out of the process and tentatively established security zones that it runs with Iran and Turkey, and without Saudi Arabia or other Arab states. But in its attempts at diplomacy, Russia has stepped on every land mine.

At Sochi, Moscow will face a front of rebel groups, many of which refuse to see Russia as a broker for the negotiations. More than 40 militias have signed a declaration saying that Russia is not pressing Assad to reach a peace agreement and is not a partner to alleviating the burden on Syria’s people. According to these militias, Russia is a hostile state that committed war crimes and for seven years of war has blocked every UN denunciation of Syria. Russia is not an honest broker, it is part of the problem.

The dozens of militias operating in Syria, some of them independent and most part of larger rebel groups, consist of blocs affiliated with countries. They bear nicknames such as the “Russian militias,” which are willing to cooperate with the Russian brokers, “the Saudi opposition,” which are also backed by the United States, “the Cairo militias,” which held talks under Egypt’s sponsorship, and the Nusra Front, part of which quit the mother group and joined other Islamist militias that aren’t partner to any negotiations. Russia also invited the Kurdish militias to Sochi, while pointedly not inviting the Kurdish Democratic Party, in order to appease Turkey.

Russia is now like a puppeteer who controls only some of his puppets. It’s not clear how Russia intends to set up a group of militias that will agree to negotiate with the Assad regime, accept Assad’s reign and take part in the war against the Islamists classified as terror groups. In addition to this tangle, Russia must tread very carefully vis-a-vis Turkey and Iran in planning security zones that could be the basis for a comprehensive cease-fire.

Meanwhile, the war continues in several places, like the continued bombardments in the Idlib and Hama region, and in areas east and west of Damascus. In the eastern region, which has been under siege for years, talks have begun on the rebels’ departure after a cease fire-is reached. In the western region the Syrian army has taken over the town of Beit Jinn and a few nearby villages, but the battles are still raging.

The Israeli angle

This is also a sensitive area for Israel; it’s about 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) from the Golan border. Some rebel groups and the Assad regime media outlets talk about “Israel’s defeat” at Beit Jinn.

According to these reports, Israel has provided weapons, ammunition and equipment to the rebels linked to the Free Syrian Army to create a buffer zone between Israel and the Syrian and Iranian forces. Israel also has reportedly helped move hundreds of fighters from Syria’s south to the Beit Jinn area via the Israeli Golan Heights, and paid those militia commanders monthly wages. The contact with Israel is in the hands of a commander dubbed Moro, who reportedly maintains close ties with the Mossad.

According to these reports, Israeli troops have watched the Beit Jinn battles from their bases on Mount Hermon and passed intelligence to the combatants in the field.

In anticipation of these militias’ possible evacuation from the Beit Jinn area, the Islamist groups seeking to move to Idlib fell out with the rebels who cooperated with Israel. These rebels now want to move to the Daraa area in south Syria, where other militias apparently assisted by Israel are operating.

Altogether the Syrian army has taken over some 85 square kilometers (33 square miles) out of 120 square kilometers that were in the rebels’ control near the northern Golan border. The Syrian army is likely to take over the remaining area soon.

Rebel militia officials who were interviewed on opposition media sites expressed anger at Israel’s failure to keep its promises to prevent Iranian forces from establishing bases near the border, in view of the Israeli army’s failure to intervene in the recent moves in Beit Jinn and the rebels’ defeat. According to the rebels’ reports, Iranian forces haven't entered the conquered region, but could do so once the Syrian army establishes control there.

If Israel is directly involved in the militias’ actions, Russia isn’t responding, at least not publicly. But Syria’s expanding of its control over areas near Israel, under Russian sponsorship, puts Israel in a serious dilemma. This can’t be solved by military action, which would lead to a direct confrontation with Russia.

One possibility is that Russia will ensure that Assad will prevent the entrance of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces into areas bordering on Israel. In exchange, Israel would cut its ties with the militias and encourage them to join the peace process at Sochi.

The problem is that Russia has already made clear it can’t be responsible for the Iranian operations in Syria, especially since these forces were invited in by Assad. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded scornfully to the Israeli-American demand to prevent Iranian forces from entering Syria, saying “when we talk about militias loyal to Iran, some will say the Syrian army supports Iran, and what is it supposed to do? Surrender?”

Lavrov made clear that after defeating the Islamic State – “we killed more than 60,000 terrorists” – Russia will keep fighting terror groups. Russia’s December 11 statement about evacuating Russian forces isn’t likely to be implemented soon.

Similarly, Israel can’t dictate the militias’ activity, as they are committed to whatever policy the anti-Russian militia bloc adopts.

Meanwhile, the United States is also setting up obstacles to Russia’s moves by saying it doesn’t intend to evacuate its forces from Syria as long as there’s no peace agreement that takes the militias’ demands into account. The United States doesn’t plan to expand its presence and operations in Syria at this stage, but its disagreement with Russia and support for anti-Russian militias could hinder the peace process.

Angry Erdogan

Also, Turkey this week resumed its attacks against Assad, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called a terrorist who must not remain president. Only a few months ago, Erdogan said Turkey wouldn’t demand Assad’s ouster as a precondition to negotiations. Erdogan’s outburst came after Russia announced its intention to invite Kurdish officials to Sochi, contrary to prior understandings between Moscow and Ankara. It also stemmed from Turkey’s aim to take over the Afrin area, which is under Kurdish control.

Russia’s response was prompt. On Thursday its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said “Erdogan’s statements about Assad being a terrorist have no legal basis.” One wonders: What’s the legal basis required to describe Assad as a terrorist? In any case, Russia’s position was clearly noted in Ankara – Russia won’t let any harm come to Assad, even from an important ally like Turkey.

The many loose threads Russia is trying to weave into diplomatic moves make it hard to draft a road map that Putin could submit to the Geneva conference or United Nations. There’s still a month to the Sochi conference, during which more militia groups may be defeated and persuaded to join Russia’s diplomatic process.

The question is whether Russia is willing to grant concessions to the militias and its partners Iran and Turkey to achieve an agreement between the militias and Assad, and between Iran and Turkey. It’s hard to expect such good news when even implementing the security-zone plan is running into snags.

The airstrikes in Idlib, Hama and Latakia are increasing, and even confidence-building gestures like releasing detainees and prisoners, as the militias demand, aren’t guaranteed.