The outlook for the Syrian conflict and the political settlement remained uncertain, reflecting the uncertainty about US policy. The continuation of active US military presence in Syria, announced by then Secretary Tillerson in January, seemed in some doubt after contrary statements and tweets from the White House. However, US military activity on the ground did not indicate any change in US posture.
Meanwhile, Russia reported that 90% of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta was cleared of “terrorist groups”. Over 128,000 civilians were evacuated from the area, through an organised “humanitarian corridor”, under the supervision of representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). The movement of militants, with families, to rebel-held areas of Idlib province was also facilitated. In an effort to counter allegations of human rights violations, the Russian Defence Ministry placed on its website live broadcasts of the evacuation from video cameras located in the region, as well as from CCTV cameras installed at various checkpoints.
Russia continued to allege that the US was sabotaging efforts to eradicate terrorist forces from Syria. FM Lavrov cited “increasing evidence” of support for Jabhat al-Nusra (under its new name), so that it is available for “Plan B” of “western partners”, which involves regime change and a breakup of Syria. Russian MFA accused the US of strengthening its military presence in the Al-Tanf camp on the Syrian-Jordan border and ensuring the continued blockade of the Damascus-Baghdad highway. It also drew attention to discoveries of caches of weapons, including chlorine and other chemical agents, in territories liberated from rebel control, apparently to build up a counter-narrative to impending accusations of use of chemical weapons by Syrian Government forces.
The Syrian political process, which had effectively been stalled after the tepid outcome of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in end-January (see Review, January 2018), remained in limbo, though Russia continued to keep in regular contact with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. In a joint press conference with the UN envoy on March 29, FM Lavrov reiterated that the Russian initiatives and the Astana process will continue to operate “under the guidance of the United Nations and in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254”. Though Russia, Iran and Turkey continue dialogue in the Astana format, action now lies with the UN envoy, who has to constitute a representative Constitution Commission to take the process forward. This has a realistic chance of progress only when US perspectives on the future shape of Syria are clearer.
March 31, 2018