Officials from Russia, Iran and Turkey assembled with representatives of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime in the Kazakh capital Astana today. The first order of business was reportedly to ensure that a shaky cease-fire in the rebel-held province of Idlib agreed in September doesn’t collapse.
Worries that the violence would escalate grew after Russian war planes struck opposition targets in Hama and Idlib provinces Sunday. It was the sharpest flare-up since mid-September, when Turkey and Russia sealed an agreement designating a demilitarized zone encircling Idlib and parts of rebel-held Aleppo and Hama provinces. The Russians said they were responding to an alleged chemical attack on Aleppo city’s al-Khalidiya neighborhood by opposition rebels the same day.
The talks, the 11th round in the Astana peace process, kicked off as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke over the telephone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to discuss recent tensions between close Turkish ally Ukraine and Russia over control of the Azov Sea. But the issue of Idlib, where Turkey is tasked — impossibly, many analysts say — with clearing out the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and co-opting “moderates,” may well have also been been broached. Erdogan had a separate call with US President Donald Trump to relay his conversations with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a watchdog group that has investigated allegations of chemical weapons use during the seven-year Syrian conflict, said it was investigating government claims that hard-line Islamists used chlorine gas against civilians.
Opposition rebels deny the report, labeling it a false flag operation. Either way, the Russian attacks may signal growing restlessness with Turkey’s perceived failure to fulfill its mandate, easing instead, as the regime sees it, into a modus vivendi with HTS.
But defanging the most powerful jihadi group is no easy task.
Sam Heller, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on non-state armed groups, has highlighted the complexities of untangling HTS from the armed opposition because of the group’s “local embeddednes,” using the language of the revolution and jihadism alike. “HTS’ integral relationship with Syria’s opposition could make it impossible to isolate the jihadists,” Heller noted recently in a piece for the specialist publication War on the Rocks. Conversely, “it could give the Turks the opening they need to engage and demobilize parts of the group.” That has yet to materialize.
Sustaining the cease-fire is critical to Turkey, as any Russian-backed regime onslaught would likely propel tens of thousands of more civilians — and jihadists — to seek refuge in Turkey at a time of deepening economic malaise and public resentment toward more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees already sheltering there.
Kerim Has, a Moscow-based Turkish analyst of Russian affairs, believes Turkey has overburdened itself and lacks the capacity to keep hard-liners in check.
Ahmet Yavuz, a retired major general who ran Turkey’s Military Academy, concurred. He told Al-Monitor, “Turkey cannot fully prevent [HTS] from targeting Aleppo from without the demilitarized zone.”
Has contended in an interview with Al-Monitor that with the airstrikes, “Russia signaled that it would intensify such actions should extremist rebels not hold their fire.” Over time, Has added, Russia will likely allow regime forces to retake territory in the demilitarized zone in a piecemeal fashion while herding jihadis into a pocket near the Turkish border. Turkey, in turn, will continue to play for more time.
Fabrice Balanche, a French academic specializing in Middle Eastern affairs at the University of Lyon II, believes the Russians will likely sound out Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, who is in Astana, on further regime advances in Idlib. “They will want parts west of Aleppo and to the north of Hama,” Balanche told Al-Monitor.
The Astana delegates are also expected to debate the establishment of a constitutional committee that is meant to convene early next year with the eventual goal of holding elections.
The Russian-led effort to shape Syria’s future government has run into several obstacles, notably the lack of consensus as to who from Syria’s fractious opposition will sit on the committee.
The United States, which controls a large chunk of territory east of the Euphrates River full of oil, water and wheat, is not present at the talks. The US position that it will not leave Syria until the Islamic State is vanquished, Iran kicked out and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cast aside muddies the waters.
Turkey’s fierce opposition to letting the largest Syrian Kurdish faction sit at the table because of its close links with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants waging a bloody insurgency against the Turkish army is another hitch.
Russia is keen to exploit Turkish fury over the United States’ partnership with the PKK-affiliated group, part of an overarching strategy to drive a wedge in the NATO alliance. Balanche reckons both Russia and Iran want Turkey to pressure the United States to leave Syria. Erdogan has vowed to “cleanse” the length of the Turkish-Syrian border of the Syrian Kurdish fighters. But Turkey is loath for the United States to leave until it disarms the Syrian Kurds, and also because the presence of at least 2,000 American forces serves as a counterweight to Russia and Iran.
Has predicts that Russia will increase pressure on Turkey to ease its objections to Kurdish participation in the constitutional committee. It would accelerate a Russian-sponsored settlement and prise the Kurds away from the United States’ grip.
Balanche noted, however, that Russia is unlikely to push Turkey too hard on either HTS or the Kurds, saying, “Putin doesn’t want any problems with Erdogan. He needs him too much to neutralize NATO and to maintain pressure over the European Union with the threat of an influx of Syrian refugees.”