For the past three weeks, the Syrian Army, supported by Russian air force, has been increasingly and intensively shelling cities and towns on or near the Aleppo-Damascus Highway (M5), especially Ma’arat an-Numman and Khan Sheikhoun towns and surroundings, in what constitutes the most serious escalation in Idlib since the agreement reached by Moscow and Ankara in September 2018 and since the January 2019 takeover of Idlib by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). In reaction, the jihadist group launched two attacks on pro-regime positions and forces; at dawn on Sunday 3rd March, a well-armed, specialist unit of Ansar al-Tawhid and a collection of Chechen fighters attacked a checkpoint in Massasneh in northern Hama, in which about twenty pro-regime troops (including Tiger Forces) were reportedly killed. On the same day, a HTS unit launched an assault on a pro-Assad checkpoint in the Jabal Turkman region of Lattakia killing four Syrian Army soldiers alongside a national of Iran – possibly IRGC.
In addition, local newspapers report that Turkey threatened Russia and Iran to withdraw from the Astana agreement due to the Syrian aggression on Idlib region. Moreover, it seems that Turkey has allowed the National Liberation Front to retaliate against the Syrian Forces. These developments in North West Syria are occurring at a moment when the country is reaching a diplomatic cross-roads which will define the coming conflict dynamics: towards a reconciliation and reunification process or towards a new phase of conflict.
Idlib agreement failure
Over the past few days and weeks, a number of indicators have raised concerns that growing dissent within the Astana group could lead to further diplomatic blockages and increased tensions on the ground, each country looking at preserving its own interests in Syria and within the region.
The North West (Idlib) first of all has increasingly become a point of disagreement between Russia and Turkey. Most recently, Russia has been calling on Turkey to meet its commitments under the joint memorandum on de-escalation in Idlib as stipulated in the September 2018 agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) that “Certain hotbeds of terrorist presence remain in the country. First of all, this concerns the Idlib de-escalation zone, where most territory is controlled by militants from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group carrying out provocative raids against civilians, Russian and Syrian military. Against this background, it is necessary to continue efficiently fighting against terrorism. We encourage our Turkish partners to meet their commitments under the September 17, 2018 memorandum on stabilizing the situation in Idlib.”
The recent jihadist attacks are only comforting Moscow in its opinion that Ankara has not, and will not, be able to enforce the agreement on the Idlib de-escalation zone which includes the “removal” of radical groups; while Ankara is now blaming the Syrian regime for hindering its efforts to “stabilize” the situation in the Idlib HTS-controlled pocket. An offensive on the last opposition held area seems to be just a question of time, a position that Tehran has been supporting since september 2018,, and which will most probably lead to massive population movements towards the Turkish border areas.
Another point of tension between Russia and Turkey is the “safe zone” that President Erdogan wants to impose East of Euphrates in order to push the Kurdish forces which Ankara sees as a branch of the PKK, an internationally sanctioned group, further from its borders. Ankara initially tried to convince the US of the necessity to create this buffer zone, under Turkish control, following the announcement by President Trump of the US troop withdrawal in December 2018. But now the American administration, under public pressure and fearing that the Turkish troops would target Kurdish forces and populations, is trying set-up such safe zone under a NATO and/or European troop control. This would block the Turks from entering North East Syria but would also prevent the Syrian regime to regain control of its border on this side of the country.
Moreover, during the last Astana group meeting in Sochi on 14 February, the Russian President refused to approve the creation of such “safe zone” by Ankara and renewing his support to a Syrian territory fully under control of Assad. Moscow has pointed to the potentially significant role of the 1998 Adana agreement signed by Syria and Turkey, which deals with security concerns over Kurdish fighters. Although Russia could generally support Turkey’s proposal to set up a safe zone in northern Syria, it insists that Damascus should be involved in the discussions and implementation – mainly through control of border points – a notion Ankara has rejected.
Russia – Iran growing tensions
Tensions are also mounting between Russia and Iran, the two main allies of the regime since 2011 and their specific interest might become increasingly divergent. Following their meeting at the Kremlin last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “showed an understanding of Israel’s security needs” seen within the context of Iran’s presence in Syria. The discussion between the two leaders reportedly focused on Iranian entrenchment in the Jewish state’s neighbor to the northeast and Netanyahu stated that “the complete withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria, is a common declared goal” of both Israel and Russia. According to Russian media, citing a senior Israeli security official “it was decided to create a group with the participation of Russia, Israel and several other countries, which will work on the issue of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria”. Furthermore, diplomatic sources are saying that Putin did not place limitations on Israel’s actions in Syria; just a few days before Israel Defense Forces shelling alleged Hezbollah position in the area of Quneitra.
These statements from the Israeli Prime Minister, which are freshly welcomed in Tehran and within the IRGC, almost coincide with the visit a President Bashar Al Assad to Tehran where he met with the Supreme Guide, and where the strong ties between the two countries were reaffirmed by both parties. Iran recently increased its funding lines for Syria and is looking at strengthening the economic relations between the two countries, including with projects such as opening new roads from Iran to Syria through Iraq or reviving a railway project, here again through Iraqi territory.
Between the dysfunctional Russia-Turkey agreement on an Idlib buffer zone, which has not improved matters in the Syrian province; the US decision, announced in December, to withdraw its forces from Syria, adding another layer of complexity to the conflict and leaving Russia, Turkey and Iran uncertain about the fate of the Kurds and territories east of the Euphrates; and the inability of the three countries to agree on the composition of a constitutional committee, which is now seen as the major obstacle holding up the Syrian political process, it appears that the policy gaps within the Astana group are getting more difficult to close. Each one of the three country is now retracting itself on its specific interests and strategy in Syria, thus creating the roots for new conflict dynamics.
It remains to be seen how the Syrian regime will manoeuvre between the different interests of Russia and Iran and manage the Turkish threat. For now Bachar Al Assad is benefiting from these dissensions, re-asserting the regime’s power in the so-called reconciled south, preparing the offensive on Idlib, putting pressure on the negotiations with the kurds, working on a political regional comeback and pushing a reconstruction agenda feeding the first circle around him. But Iran will have to react at some point to Israeli military operations against its proxies, potentially leading to a direct confrontation on Syrian territory. This would fail Russian plans to see the regime regaining full control of the country and could potentially lead to more clashes between Russian and Iranian forces. The Syrian conflict is obviously entering a new phase in which regional and international powers will, even more than before, determine the agenda and the future of the Syrian people.