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.