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Will Netanyahu enforce Syrian red line against Iran?

Israel opposes cease-fire plan, as Russia, Turkey and Syria inch toward possible agreement on Afrin.
Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria July 3, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTS19M60

As Turkey steps up its pressure on the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and Israel rejects a US-Russia cease-fire in the southwest of the country, a deal among Moscow, Ankara and Damascus may be in the works in Afrin.

Turkey has escalated its attacks on the YPG, and the US-YPG partnership, in recent weeks. On July 15, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, Serdar Kilic, labeled the US decision to liberate Raqqa in partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is made up primarily of YPG fighters, as “a strategic mistake,” Amberin Zaman writes. The SDF force, which numbers 30,000-40,000 fighters, is taking heavy casualties so far in the Raqqa offensive, according to the Pentagon, as Jack Detsch reports from Washington.

Zaman writes that in a further blow to US-Turkey relations, “Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency has revealed what it claims to be the locations of 10 US military bases in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, a move that will likely put a further dent in the rocky relationship between the two NATO allies.”

Turkey has refused to allow humanitarian aid, including baby formula, into areas under YPG control, and it has shut down Mercy Corps operations from Turkey into Syria.

Fighting has intensified between Turkey and the YPG in Afrin. Zaman reports, “Turkish forces reportedly kept up a barrage of artillery attacks targeting the YPG-controlled enclave of Afrin. The Syrian human rights group said Turkish forces had fired on the outskirts of the city and its environs for a second consecutive day, causing fires and other material damage. Thousands of residents infuriated by the deaths of a woman and her two children allegedly as a result of Turkish actions have taken to the streets in Afrin. The pro-Turkish daily Sabah confirmed that Turkish shelling of YPG positions was ongoing, labeling it a response to YPG aggression. It remains unclear whether Turkish forces were firing from across the border or from within Syria.”

Zaman adds that the escalation in Turkey-YPG fighting may obscure the beginnings of a deal among Moscow, Ankara and Damascus to de-escalate the conflict in Afrin. “A Turkish buildup inside Syria is meanwhile reportedly continuing amid widespread speculation over a deal supposedly being cooked up between Turkey and Russia. In sum, Russia is pressuring the YPG to allow Syrian regime forces to assume control over Afrin. As things currently stand, having regime forces in charge of Afrin would be a far lesser evil for Turkey, because keeping Afrin truncated from the rest of the Kurdish-controlled territories that lie east of Manbij is Turkey’s strategic priority in northern Syria. It is no longer primarily concerned with overthrowing the regime. In exchange, Russia is believed to want Turkey’s help wresting Idlib from Jabhat al-Nusra’s latest incarnation, known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS),” Zaman writes.

In March, this column, referencing reporting by Zaman and others, asked whether Turkey’s misstep in Manbij could be a template for Raqqa, meaning that a role for the Syrian government could be an acceptable “least worst” option for Ankara relative to YPG control of any liberated areas.

Hamidreza Azizi places recent developments in a broader context. He writes, “Moscow has so far tried to build on its fundamental shared interests with Tehran and Ankara — for example, pushing for a political transition plan in Syria while preserving a minimum level of influence for each of the three parties in areas they deem vital for their national interests. But Russia also faces the task of bringing Iran and Turkey to a wider compromise on their long-term interests in Syria; this goal is difficult mainly because Iran prioritizes the defeat of all terrorist and armed rebel groups over the start of a political transition while Turkey wants to use the rebels it supports and the territories they have under their control as a bargaining chip in any future political talks.” 

Two weeks ago, this column suggested that “the beginnings of a US-Russian understanding on Syria may be a welcome step toward a political settlement. It could also be a catalyst for a new alignment that brings Turkey closer to Syria and Iran, while testing the limits and extent of Moscow’s influence among the regional players.”

“Although Turkey was the main obstacle to an agreement at the latest talks in Astana, Russia seems willing to keep bargaining to gain Ankara’s cooperation by giving it some points in northern Syria, an area vital for Turkey because of its concerns over the growing role of Kurdish groups. At the same time, by declaring that Tehran will host the next meeting of the Astana working group in early August, Moscow tried not to alienate Iran and to keep it active in the Astana talks,” Azizi said.

One of the challenges for both Moscow and Washington is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the US-Russia cease-fire agreement, arguing that it serves to enhance Iran’s position in Syria.

“Over the past few months, Israel had been involved in the contacts between the parties that led to the implementation of the cease-fire,” Ben Caspit reports. “Israel had a foothold in all matters concerning the region discussed by the superpowers — the southwest, which Israel borders. Israel participated in these talks with the Americans, Jordanians and Russians. It also conducted separate talks with each of the parties. While discussions were underway, Israel reiterated on numerous occasions that there must be no Hezbollah or Iranian presence whatsoever in the buffer zones that will be declared along the various borders. Another Israeli demand was that Iran be prevented from establishing military bases in Syria, from creating or leasing a port along the Syrian coast and from rebuilding Syria's arms industry.”

The US-Russia agreement, according to Caspit, “irritates an old wound. The last time Washington reached a similar agreement was the nuclear deal with Iran, during the Barack Obama administration. Netanyahu fought against that until the very last minute and even beyond.”

The question is how, and whether, Israel will respond. “Netanyahu is raising the threshold and drawing another red line along Israel's northern front,” Caspit explains. “The question is how seriously these threats will be taken by the superpowers and by Israel's enemies. The last time Netanyahu made such a threat and drew red lines, it turned out to be an idle threat. Over the past few years, Netanyahu has stated time and again that if the international community does not know how to block Iran's race to obtain nuclear arms, Israel will act alone.”

Moscow’s management of the expectations and interests among the regional parties remains a precarious balance. Russia’s “key objective,” according to Azizi, is “to prevent any escalation that could potentially lead to its further involvement in the Syrian crisis. At the same time, these various sets of agreements could potentially introduce Moscow as the real peace broker in Syria.

“Given the widely divergent interests of the various parties involved,” Aziz continues, “what lies ahead may perhaps prove too difficult a task for Moscow — especially when it comes to its so-far successful cooperation with Iran. Acknowledging the three main Iranian interests in Syria as maintaining the government of President Bashar al-Assad, preserving access to Lebanon through Syria and protecting Syria’s territorial integrity, one is left to wonder how the Russians plan to simultaneously pursue diverging commitments. How can Iran’s access to Lebanon be preserved while still addressing Israel’s security concerns? … Moreover, how will Moscow work toward preserving Syria’s territorial integrity while also aiding the division of the country into different zones of influence?”

As we noted here earlier this month, the emerging and complex interests of the regional parties will “test Putin, who welcomes and needs a US partnership to stabilize Syria, but whose leverage with Damascus, Tehran and Ankara could be weakened, rather than strengthened, by closer ties with the United States. Putin’s endgame is relief from US-led sanctions, and whether Trump can hold off the even more intensive bill pending before the House of Representatives. If no sanctions relief is forthcoming, Putin will have little interest in carrying Trump’s water at the expense of his regional ties. Russia might therefore undertake an outwardly passive and inwardly supportive role that allows the regional parties to take the initiative against the Syrian Kurds or others. Moscow might see that as the winning hand.”

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