As Syria’s Idlib campaign stalls, Russia looks beyond military action to diplomacy
Syria’s civil war, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said, has killed more than 370,000 people, made 6.6 million Syrians internally displaced persons and another 5.6 million fled the country.
The last significant pocket of resistance is rebel-held Idlib province, which, for the past two months, has been subjected to intense military action by government forces, assisted by air attacks by Syria’s Russian allies, who insist that they are attacking only al-Qaeda militants.
Hundreds have been killed in the offensive. The United Nations estimates that 3 million people live in Idlib and that more than 40% of the civilians are from other previously opposition-held areas. UN agencies say that approximately 300,000 Syrians have fled Idlib to areas bordering Turkey since military operations escalated April 29.
In light of the ensuing military stalemate, Moscow is again eyeing diplomatic options similar to meeting last September 17 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The two leaders concluded an agreement to create a demilitarised buffer zone in Idlib, which spared the 2.7 million civilians there from a major government offensive until fighting escalated two months ago.
A month before the Putin-Erdogan meeting, the Syrian government declared capturing Idlib a high priority and prepared ground forces for an all-out assault.
Under the agreement’s terms, the “conventional” rebels were required to withdraw their heavy weaponry from the zone and jihadists were ordered to withdraw completely. Turkish troops were deployed to monitor the agreement but it was never fully implemented, leaving a hard-core militant cadre to bide its time. While the Russian-Turkish agreement lessened violence in Idlib, it could only operate as a de facto truce.
As Idlib, northern Hama and western Aleppo provinces constitute the last significant opposition stronghold in Syria, the Syrian armed forces are as eager for total victory as the dug-in opposition is determined to resist, once again leaving the civilian population in the crossfire.
Despite rising international concern about civilian casualties, the Syrian government and Russia insist their actions are solely in response to repeated truce violations by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda who dominate the opposition.
The largest wildcard in the complex and dynamic regional geopolitics is whether Russia and Turkey can align their objectives and how much influence Russia can have on making the Syrian government agree to mitigate the slaughter of the innocents.
Russia and Turkey are the dominant interventionists and other outside powers, including Iran, Israel and the United States are pursuing competing — but conflicting — political agendas, obfuscating the search for a sense of sustainable and durable peace.
In June, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem thanked Russia, Iran and China for their support during the civil war while stating that Turkey and the United States should be among the first international forces to leave Syrian territory.
As Erdogan’s policies have become more ambivalent towards the United States, Ankara has drawn closer to Moscow for economic support as well as military backing. Erdogan’s controversial purchase of the Russian S-400 antiaircraft system soured relations with the United States.
The US government was sufficiently appalled that it cancelled sales of its fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighter and many members of the US Congress called for sanctions to be applied against Turkey for its temerity.
Despite the growing rapprochement, Russian and Turkish foreign policy continues to diverge on Syria. Russia and Iran continue to assist the Syrian government in operations while Turkey supports the opposition, whose representatives claim that they receive significant support from the United States, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries.
Russia has repeatedly proven, since its military intervention began in September 2015, that it is eager to assist the Syrian government to recapture territory, including eventually Idlib province, but its efforts have encountered fierce resistance from Erdogan.
The Turkish president strongly opposes a Russia-backed offensive in a region that borders his country, which could cause further potential refugee flows from Idlib, adding to the more than 3.6 million Syrians already in Turkey, leaving Ankara housing the largest refugee population in the world. Furthermore, Erdogan would like to retain Turkish influence in the zones delineated and its agreement with Russia.
On July 1, the Kremlin reported that Putin had discussed with Erdogan another trilateral summit on Syria, including Iran, followed up on July 22 by a phone call between the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers covering topics ranging from Idlib to Syria’s future constitution.
For the long-suffering residents of Idlib, the summit cannot come too soon, given the earlier failure of numerous UN attempts to broker a peace agreement.
How far Putin is willing to rein in Assad to placate his first potential NATO ally — Turkey — is unsettling analysts from Washington to Jerusalem, not to mention Tehran.