The Russia-backed Syrian forces preparations for a decisive military campaign on the Syrian rebel stronghold of idlib provoked strong international protest. President Trump warned sternly against the campaign in a couple of tweets, saying it would be “reckless” and a grave humanitarian mistake costing hundreds of thousands of lives. US NSA Bolton conveyed the same message to his Russian counterpart, as did the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US warned of possible chemical weapons use by the Syrian government in the campaign, and declared that any “verified” use of chemical weapons would trigger a swift and appropriate response from the US and its allies. The UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura added his appeal against an Idlib attack. Turkey broke ranks with its Astana process partners, Russia and Iran, to join the chorus of protest.
The Syrian (and Russian) motivation for the Idlib campaign was, firstly, to complete the process of taking control of all erstwhile rebel-held Syrian territory. The further motivation was to stop the increasing attacks by rocket launchers and drones from Idlib on Russian military bases and the “liberated” territories of Aleppo and Hama. The Russians alleged that weaponry for these attacks were supplied by US allies.
The opposition to the Idlib military campaign had multiple motivations. There was genuine concern that a humanitarian catastrophe would befall Idlib’s 3 million civilians. Turkey (and Europe) were concerned about the consequent flood of refugees out of Idlib. The Russians alleged that the main reason for the opposition of US and its allies was that it would disrupt their effort to integrate moderate and the terrorist opposition in Idlib and equip them to launch a pushback for retaking territory from the Syrian government forces. Turkey, which considers Idlib as its zone of influence and a buffer against Kurdish activity, supports a “moderate” opposition group there and does not want Syrian forces to recapture the province.
Eventually, though the American pressure was intense, it may have been the Turkish opposition that proved decisive. A summit in Tehran of the Astana process (Russia, Turkey, Iran) on September 7 revealed open disagreement between Turkey and Russia on how Idlib should be dealt with. The Russians, who had already deployed submarines and missile launchers in the Mediterranean Sea to deter Western intervention, acted to preserve the unity of the Astana process. In a meeting with President Erdogan (September 17), President Putin thrashed out a deal that enables Turkey to retain control of Idlib, while putting the onus on it to take out the terrorist groups which were threatening Russian bases. It was decided to establish, by October 15, a demilitarised zone of 15–20 km width along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops, with Turkish mobile patrol groups and Russian military police units monitoring the demilitarised zone. Turkey would ensure that radical militants (including Jabhat al-Nusra) are withdrawn from the area and, by October 10, secure the withdrawal of heavy military equipment, tanks, multiple rocket launchers, cannon and mortars of all opposition groups. Transit routes along the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama routes would be fully restored by end-2018.
Though the Russia-Turkey compromise resolved the immediate impasse, its effectiveness remains to be proved. Multiple forces in the region would be interested in preventing Turkey from fulfilling its commitments under the agreement, even if it were sincere in doing so.
Meanwhile, on the same day as the Russian-Turkish summit, an Israeli missile strike on Syrian targets near Damascus resulted in a Russian military reconnaissance aircraft, with 15 servicemen on board, being brought down by a Syrian air defence missile, because (as per the Russian Defence Ministry) the Israeli planes took cover of the Russian plane to escape attack. Russia responded within days, announcing that it will deploy the S-300 air defence system in Syria to protect its forces. Earlier plans to deploy this system in Syria had been deferred at Israel’s request. In fact, Russia had accommodated some of Israel’s interests in Syria, including keeping Iranian forces away from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights and turning a blind eye to the many Israeli sorties on Iranian targets in Syria. Two phone calls from Israeli PM Netanyahu, offering condolences on the downing of the plane and (presumably) asking that the S-300 not be deployed in Syria, did not have the desired effect, as President Putin announced that the deployment of the system was commencing immediately, since security of Russian forces had to be assured. The deployment of the system would strengthen Russian control over Syrian airspace, thereby complicating air operations, not only of Israel, but also of America and its allies, making deconfliction coordination more critical.
Given the current state of US-Russia relations, it was remarkable that Secretary Pompeo issued a statement immediately after the incident, expressing sorrow for the death of the Russian aircrew and reminding of the need to find peaceful and political resolution to the “many overlapping conflicts in the region”. The statement mentioned “Iran’s provocative transit of dangerous weapon systems through Syria”, but did not contain criticism of Russian activities in Syria.
The US Special Representative for Syria Engagement reiterated on September 27 that the US will remain in Syria until the “enduring defeat of ISIS”, that it wants to re-invigorate the political process (meaning establish a post-Assad order) and the removal of all “Iranian-commanded forces” from Syria – an interesting new formulation, different from the expressions, “Iranian forces and their proxies” and “Iranian influence”, which have more commonly been used. To reinvigorate the political process, the “small group” on Syria (US, UK, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) issued a statement, calling upon the UN Special Envoy de Mistura to quickly convene a Constitutional Committee to draft a new Syrian constitution, lay the groundwork for UN-supervised elections, and to report progress to the UN Security Council by October 31. In media interactions, the US Special Representative indicated that the lists for participation in the committee drawn up at the Sochi Congress of National Dialogue (though he did not mention the Congress) would be taken on board in the process (Review, 1/18). In his comments, he also hinted that Russia and Iran may go along with dumping President al-Assad, if they could get a “friendly regime” in Syria from the UN-led political process, and that this may also facilitate removal of overt Iranian presence in Syria. It is not clear whether these remarks indicate a subtle change in the US outlook on a Syrian settlement.
September 30, 2018