The Astana process on Syria achieved a notable success on December 18, when representatives of Russia, Turkey and Iran handed over to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, a final agreed list of Syrian civil society representatives for the “Syrian Constitutional Committee”, which would draw up a new Syrian constitution, under which elections would be held. The list of government and opposition representatives (50 each) had largely been finalized earlier, but many names on the civil society list faced objections from Turkey, Iran and Syria. Russia’s painstaking efforts with the two partner countries, the Syrian government and a spectrum of opposition groups of all hues (using governmental assistance from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and others) finally secured consensus on the list before the end of 2018, in accordance with a timetable prescribed by the US-led “small group” on Syria (though Russia had then rejected this “artificial deadline”).
President Trump’s announcement on December 19 of an immediate and full withdrawal of troops from Syria created new uncertainties. It overturned the Syria policy enunciated by Secretaries of State Tillerson and Pompeo and endorsed by Defence Secretary Mattis and NSA Bolton.
While cautiously welcoming the announcement, Russian officials expressed scepticism about its actual implementation and uncertainty about whether American special forces would remain, whether private military contractors would fill the breach and how American allies, both European and regional, would fill the breach. They awaited a bilateral approach from the US to discuss coordination of actions on the ground; this did not happen.
President Trump’s announcement of troop withdrawal from Syria followed a telephone conversation with Turkey’s President Erdogan, who assured him that Turkey would deal with the remnants of the ISIS in Syria. However, the decision may not have been as spontaneous as it was projected (though the extent of involvement in it of others in the American establishment is unclear). The US Special Representative for Syria Engagement was in Turkey a few days earlier. Even more significant was a disclosure in mid-December by the Turkish Foreign Minister that, in their conversation in Buenos Aires in end-November, President Trump had held out to President Erdogan the possibility that the US might extradite the Turkish Islamic cleric Gulen, the request for whose extradition (for his alleged involvement in a 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey) has become a prestige issue for President Erdogan.
Russian apprehensions that Turkey may be sucked into an arrangement with the US, to the detriment of the interests of its Astana partners, were somewhat assuaged by a high-level joint meeting in Moscow (December 29) of the Foreign & Defence Ministers and heads of Intelligence of Russia and Turkey. It was publicly confirmed after the meeting that military representatives of Russia and Turkey would coordinate their actions on the ground and, further, both sides remain committed to the Astana process.
Even before this meeting, in a move almost certainly facilitated by Russia, the Syrian Kurdish leadership in northern Syria invited Syrian government troops to move into the outskirts of Manbij province on the Turkish border, to forestall a possible Turkish incursion.
Meanwhile, the convening of the Syrian Constitutional Committee has not yet taken place. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov alleged that, after accusing Russia of foot-dragging over finalization of the list, the US, France and Germany quietly persuaded the UN Envoy to delay the convening of the Committee, pushing it on to the plate of the new Special Envoy, who assumes office in early-2019. There may yet be multiple acts left in the Syrian drama.
December 30, 2018