The liberation of Baghouz from ISIS did not catalyse a Syrian political settlement; it has, in fact, introduced new complications, as was illustrated by the Astana group meeting in Nursultan on April 25-26. The meeting was attended by, in addition to representatives from Russia, Iran and Turkey, UN Special Envoy Pedersen and delegations from the Syrian government and opposition. The US, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon were added as observers of the Astana Process. Russia pushed to finalize the composition of the Constitution Committee. Iran and Syria wanted to first address the impasse in Idlib; and Turkey and the Syrian opposition focused on the Kurdish presence in northeast Syria. As a result of these mismatched priorities, the meeting had no substantive outcome, other than a united (and strong) criticism of the US decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Syrian Golan Heights. The compilation of the final list for the Constitutional Committee was shifted to a subsequent meeting in Geneva. The problems with finalizing the Constitutional Committee stem from the changed ground realities over time. Over the past year, the US (and allies) had tacitly outsourced this complex task to the Astana trio. The three lists – of Syrian government, opposition and civil society – were compiled largely by Russia and Turkey, after intense consultations with the Syrian government and the opposition groups of various hues. A final comprehensive list was handed over to the then UN Special Envoy for Syria in December 2018, meeting the “deadline” of end-2018 set by the West (see Review, 12/18). However, the UN envoy was asked not to proceed with the list, since some western countries felt that some of the Syrian opposition members on the list were really al-Assad supporters. By the time the exercise was restarted, the balance of forces had changed. The Syrian government is now in a stronger position, having regained control of much of its territory, and therefore less inclined to make concessions on the list. It wants to press home its advantage and regain control over the last major hold-out, the Idlib governorate. In a deal between Presidents Putin and Erdogan in September 2018, Turkey undertook the somewhat impractical task of isolating the extreme elements of the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Its goal was to get the remaining “moderate” HTS elements to join the opposition groups under Turkish patronage and thereby retain its leverage in this region. Instead, HTS appears to have consolidated its hold over the region, uniting other militant groups under it and imposing a form of Islamic rule (according to a recent Amnesty report). In March, the Defence Ministries of Russia and Turkey reached an agreement, under which Russian troops would patrol one side of a “buffer” zone, with Turkish troops patrolling the other. A monitoring committee was to have been set up, but this has not happened. Meanwhile, the Syrian government (supported by Iran) has been advocating an all-out attack on Idlib to liberate it. Conscious of Western opposition and the importance of keeping Turkey onside, Russia is exercising restraint, though it has been providing air support for regular Syrian attacks on alleged targets in Idlib. The visit of President Erdogan to Moscow showed the motivation for Russia’s kid glove treatment of Turkey. President Erdogan publicly confirmed that Turkey would stand by its order of the Russian air defence system S-400, despite increasingly strident US exhortations to withdraw from the deal. Vice President Pence said it would endanger Turkey’s position in NATO; the State Department threatened US sanctions. The two Presidents were also said to have discussed other projects of military-technical cooperation, including “joint development and production of high-tech weapons." Russia is building four 1200 MW nuclear power plants in Turkey, with the first to be commissioned in 2023. The construction of TurkStream, a 15.5 bcm gas pipeline under the Black Sea, will be completed by end-2019. A number of other economic cooperation projects make the relationship valuable to both Russia and Turkey, besides the strategic calculations (see Review, 2/19). Meanwhile, Russia has been working assiduously for reconciliation between Kurdish groups and other Arab tribes in northern Syria and the al-Assad government, in preparation for an eventual reunification of the country. It is also consolidating its economic presence in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, from where President Trump had said the US would monitor Iranian presence in Syria after US troops withdrew from that country. Russian Deputy PM Borisov visited Syria to finalise a 49-year lease of an area around Tartus port for use by Russian business. Russia and Syria had already signed an agreement in 2017 for a Russian navy logistics support centre in Tartus. DyPM Borisov also co-chaired a Russia-Iraq Intergovernmental Economic Commission in Baghdad on April 24-25, which concluded agreements in telecommunications, energy, information technology, transport and banking. Russian investment in the oil and gas sector in Iraq is now about $8 billion, and is slated to grow to about $45 billion by 2035, as per bilateral commitments. At present, Russian-run oilfields in Iraq produce about 400,000 barrels a day. Speaking at an international security conference in Moscow, the Secretary General of the Iraqi Defence Ministry said that that Russia-Iraq partnership was at the highest level, with close cooperation between Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian intelligence services. He also confirmed that military-technical cooperation is growing, “without American influence”.
April 30, 2019