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The Takeaway: January 15, 2020

Highlights: ‘No Idlib for Idlib:’ endgame in Syria strands city; Muqtada Al-Sadr plays the angles; Soleimani’s daughter expects Hamas leader to avenge father’s death; Turkey takes up for Australian camels.
Smoke billows following a reported air strike by pro-regime forces in the town of Maaret Al-Numan in Syria's northwestern Idlib province on January 13, 2020. (Photo by Abdulaziz KETAZ / AFP) (Photo by ABDULAZIZ KETAZ/AFP via Getty Images)
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Three quick takes:

1. Nowhere to Go: Putin’s uncertain endgame in Syria


When Russian and Syrian forces besieged Aleppo in 2016, opposition and terrorist groups as well as thousands of civilians fled to Idlib governorate.


As a final siege of Idlib approaches, Sarah Dadouch reports in the Washington Post that there is a refrain in Syria of “There is no Idlib for Idlib” – meaning its residents and the armed groups there have nowhere to go.


‘Largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates:’ There are approximately 20,000-30,000 terrorists in Idlib, according to UN and US estimates. The key al-Qaeda-linked force is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The effect is that parts of Idlib have become a big prison under the rule of armed gangs and radical Islamists. Michael Mulroy, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said in May 2019, “Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world.”


‘Dawn of Idlib:’ Syrian forces backed by Russian air power have been waging an offensive to reclaim the province, at a high humanitarian cost. According to the United Nations, over 700,000 Syrians have been displaced and at least 1,300 killed since May 2019. The latest phase of the conflict, called Operation Dawn of Idlib, began in December. Syria wants to retake control of highways in Idlib province linking Aleppo with Latakia and Hama to choke off the armed groups and expand the Syrian government’s reach between cities.


Bad Blood: Putin knows that the best-case outcome in Idlib requires an understanding between Assad and Erdogan. There is lots of bad blood here to overcome. Erdogan and Assad had good relations until the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011. Turkey has since backed armed opposition forces, including radical jihadists, and many of these groups remain in Idlib. Ankara’s efforts to cut deals with so-called moderates in Idlib to hold off a Russian/Syrian attack have been a flop. Turkey invaded northeastern Syria on Oct. 9, 2019, to eliminate what Erdogan considers the terrorist threat from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The YPG is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the on-the-ground partner of the United States.


Putin’s diplomatic surge: Last week we wrote about Putin’s surprise Christmas visit to Damascus on Jan. 7, when he met with Assad. The next day he met Erdogan in Turkey. On Jan. 10, Russia secured passage of a UN Security Council resolution reauthorizing just two of four border crossings, both on the Turkish border and under the control of the Syrian government. This was a statement by Russia that any and all crossings should go through the Syrian government, not opposition-held territory. Three days later on Jan. 13, in the most senior direct contact between Turkey and Syria since 2011, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met with his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk in Moscow with Russia mediating.


Putin’s common ground: Putin is appealing to Erdogan and Assad for common ground in three areas:


The Kurdish question: Erdogan’s top priority in Syria is to eliminate what he considers the terrorist threat from the YPG. Putin’s approach is to negotiate an update of the Syria-Turkey Adana Agreement of 1998 in which Syria ended support for the PKK, which was previously based in Damascus. Although the YPG cut a deal with Damascus in October 2019 after the Turkish invasion, Erdogan and Assad could probably eventually agree on the most limited version of autonomy for governance in predominantly Kurdish areas of Syria.


Refugees: Erdogan fears a final siege of Idlib could lead to tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees entering Turkey, which already hosts approximately 3.6 million refugees, at great strain to the Turkish economy. Erdogan said he is prepared to relocate Syrians in a safe zone in northeast Syria. Russia’s commitment, in contrast with the United States, is to work toward the return of all refugees to Syria. This also fits with Erdogan’s objective for refugees to return to their homes. Syria has not embraced a full-scale return and many refugees fear government retribution or demands such as forced conscription.


Avoid escalation: Neither Erdogan nor Assad crave a direct confrontation, given the already high costs of the conflict, but it still could happen.


Our take: Putin’s endgame is loaded with risk. There is no trust between Assad and Erdogan, although that makes Putin an even more invaluable mediator. Putin alone also can’t solve the refugee problem for Turkey. The Trump administration, via sanctions and a veto on the Security Council, will assure that Assad won't benefit from reconstruction. Putin's endgame remains a long shot, but he's not giving up.


Read more: Kirill Semenov has the story on Putin’s latest mediation efforts.


2. Iraqi activists under increasing attack as Sadr plays the angles


The US killing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has set back the Iraqi protest and reform movement, at least for the moment.


Background: The protests began on Oct. 1 when large crowds converged on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and across Iraq to denounce corruption and Iranian interference and call for a new government.


More than 400 protesters have been killed since, and many have been abducted and detained by masked gangs reportedly linked to Iranian-backed militias.


‘A subset of killings:’ The killing of Soleimani on Jan. 3 added a further chill to the danger facing protesters, activists and journalists. The demonstrations decreased in size and frequency as a result of the tense security situation.


Mustafa Saadoun reports, “There has been a subset of killings that has targeted protest activists who have been raising funds, providing ambulance services and mobilizing demonstrators. Journalists providing the public with information about the protests also have been killed in an apparent bid to curtail coverage.”


On Jan. 10, Dijlah TV correspondent Ahmad Abdul Samad and photographer Safa Ghali were shot at close range while covering demonstrations in Basra.


Iraqi officials take cover: “Even politicians who were sympathetic to the demonstrators — and who, more importantly, supported clipping the wings of the militias — are now forced to toe the line in defense of Iraqi sovereignty,” write Christine McCaffray van den Toorn and Raad Alkadiri. “As a result, their ability to stymie efforts to replace the current prime minister with one less tied to the political elite and Tehran may have been fatally weakened.”


Al-Sadr plays the angles: Populist cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who has been in Qom, Iran, mediating among Iraqi factions, called this week for a “million man” mass protest against US troops in Iraq. Sadr seeks to become the go-to guy among Iran, the Iraqi government and the protesters.


Our take: Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani remains a pivotal player. He is a kind of check, if there can be one, on Iranian pressure and coercion. Iraq remains an essential partner for the United States and the relationship is worth saving. Its collapse or complete slide into the Iranian orbit are both unacceptable outcomes.


Read more: Jack Detsch has the scoop on why Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi may actually want US troops to stay in Iraq with a reduced mission and mandate.


3. Hamas leader gets speaking role at Soleimani funeral


Hamas’ political bureau leader Ismael Haniyeh was the only non-Iranian figure to speak at Soleimani’s funeral in Tehran on Jan. 6. Soleimani’s daughter even mentioned Haniyeh as among those who will avenge her father’s death.


Why it matters: Hamas counts on Iranian military and financial support. That support ended when Hamas cut ties with Syria, a close Iran ally, in 2011. Soleimani was vital to rebuilding Iran-Hamas ties and Haniyeh’s prominent role at the funeral shows that Iran’s leaders expect Hamas to step up if called to avenge Soleimani’s killing.


Escalation comes at a cost: Hamas has benefitted from a recent cease-fire and economic concessions from Israel, so it would carefully weigh an escalation on behalf of Iran or anyone else. Israel has conveyed that it will hold Hamas accountable for any rockets or other attacks coming from Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders have intensified contacts with American and Western interlocutors.


Read more: Check out the reporting from Gaza by Adnan Abu Amer and Rasha Abou Jalal as well as the Week in Review for further assessment of this trend.

One other interesting thing:

Camel Diplomacy: Turkey calls out Australia for slaughter


Although Turkey’s record on the environment would not make Greta Thunberg’s favorites list, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) occasionally offers encouraging statements and efforts on animal rights and prevention of animal cruelty. But it still came as a bit of a shock, reports Amberin Zaman, when the AKP spokesman called out Australia for its plans to kill thousands of camels to reduce strain on limited water resources.

What we're reading ... and why:
New York Times Magazine Profile of Mohammed Bin Zayed

“MBZ remains a rare figure in the Middle East: a shrewd, secular-leaning leader with a blueprint of sorts for the region’s future and the resources to implement it,” writes Robert Worth in a must-read profile of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the United Arab Emirates’ armed forces.

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