The last ISIS bastion of Baghouz fell to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, but a Syrian political settlement still appeared distant. Russia remained at the centre of efforts to draw together the multiple strands of the Syrian political process, papering over widening cracks between the Astana process partners and keeping the Syrian government on board in the exercise of finalizing the Syrian Constitutional Committee.
The effort to clear Idlib of extremists remained a delicate issue with Turkey. The failure of the Putin-Erdogan agreement of September 2018 (see Review, 9/18) was tacitly acknowledged by the defence forces of the two sides entering into a fresh agreement in early-March, under which Russian troops were introduced in the mix to patrol one side of a “buffer” zone, with Turkish troops patrolling the other. Russia went a step further and commenced airstrikes against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) targets in Idlib, apparently reacting to attacks on its airbase in Khmeimim.
Russian actions tried to balance Turkish ambitions against Syrian and Iranian apprehensions. Even as it cooperated with Russia in Idlib operations, Turkey was reported to be trying to co-opt HTS into the coalition of Syrian opposition groups under its control and to draw the Saudi-based Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) into a broad Syrian opposition coalition under a Turkish umbrella. Russia countered this effort, both by keeping up military pressure on HTS and by a Saudi-arranged meeting in Riyadh with the HNC to seek its support for negotiations on the composition of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. FM Lavrov hinted at continuing issues with the Syrian government on this. A further twist was given by Israeli PM Netanyahu’s revelation that he and President Putin had agreed (at their meeting in end-February) to form a joint working group to work towards the pull out of all foreign troops from Syria – the obvious reference being to Iran and Hezbollah. Russian analysts saw this as an indication of a widening rift between Russia and Iran and as the trigger for a sudden and unannounced visit by Syrian President Assad to Tehran, where he was received by both President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei. Shortly thereafter, the Army Chiefs of both Iran and Iraq were in Syria to discuss strategy.
Despite the machinations on the ground, Russia and Turkey presented a united front at a meeting of their Foreign Ministers (29 March), preparatory to a Summit planned in April. They expressed “full agreement” on “strict” implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, reaffirmed the vitality of the Astana format, agreed to expedite the constitution of the Constitutional Committee and discussed cooperation for a demilitarised zone in Idlib. The two Ministers noted the important economic and defence linkages, which (see Review, 2/19) provide the centripetal counter to the centrifugal forces of divergence in strategic perspectives.
Amidst the other uncertainties, there appeared to be a better level of communications between the US and Russia on Syria developments. The Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces and his US counterpart were reported to have discussed coordination of operations, including post-US withdrawal. The US Special Envoy for Syria told the media that the US was working with Russia to further the UN process, that the Russians were working hard on the Constitutional Committee, were “forthcoming in ideas” and were “helpful” on these issues. The reported agreement between President Putin and PM Netanyahu may have helped to set the tone. It remains to be seen whether that agreement was merely tactical – for Israel, a useful input before its elections, and for Russia, a negotiating ploy with the US and (possibly) pressure on an already beleaguered Iran for concessions on Syria or other issues.
March 30, 2019