1. Erdogan and Putin try to pick up the pieces in Syria
The United States will convene an emergency UN Security Council meeting Feb. 6 to address a massive humanitarian refugee crisis in Idlib, and to try to exploit a related falling-out between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Operation Dawn of Idlib: In December 2019 Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian forces launched a major offensive to retake Idlib province, the last redoubt of as many as 20,000 to 30,000 militant and terrorist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the progeny of al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra; affiliated radical jihadi groups; and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces. Last week, Syrian forces took Maarat al-Numan, a small town that sits on a strategic Damascus-Aleppo highway in Idlib province. Syria continues to press its attack on Saraqib, another key node on the M4/M5 highways.
‘Unprecedented’ mass displacement: The result of this fighting is a big wave of displaced people. The World Health Organization reports that 520,000 Syrians are adrift and undergoing “extraordinary” suffering.
Shuttle diplomacy: Putin tried to engineer a diplomatic breakthrough between Syria and Turkey last month, meeting separately with Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad; hammering out a cease-fire with Erdogan starting Jan. 12; and arranging a meeting of Syrian and Turkish spy chiefs in Moscow Jan. 13. At the same time, though, Russian forces backed the Syrian offensive. Putin plainly had hoped these pieces would hang together, just enough, to allow Syrian forces to retake the M4/M5 nodes, without the whole thing blowing up.
Erdogan blames Russian negligence: And then it blew up. Erdogan blamed “Russian negligence” for the Syrian army’s killing of eight Turkish soldiers and civilians in Idlib province Feb. 3. Turkey has 12 military outposts in the region, according to a Russia-Turkish de-escalation agreement in 2018. Syria struck Turkish forces Feb. 3 with its attack. Turkey responded with a ground and air barrage that took out at least 13 Syrian soldiers.
Tough talk in Kiev: Erdogan felt burned by Putin for three reasons. First, because this occurred after he and Putin ironed out a cease-fire. Second, because the Russian military had not warned Turkey about the Syrian attack. And third, because the assault was so vicious it produced another 500,000 refugees, which Turkey is determined not to host. Turkey already is overtaxed by 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. One sign of Erdogan’s pique: Visiting Kiev and standing alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he referred to Ukraine as a “strategic partner,” adding that Turkey does not recognize “the unlawful annexation of Crimea” while announcing Turkish military assistance to Ukraine.
Reconnecting, but ‘not with anger’: Erdogan said he expects to settle differences with Putin over Syria, but “not with anger.” The two spoke on Feb. 4. Putin said Turkey needs to do more to “neutralize” the extremists in Idlib. Erdogan said Feb. 5 that he expects Syria to pull back from the Turkish observation posts, and for Syria, and Russia, to adhere to the cease-fire provisions in the Sochi agreement. He added that separating the moderates from the terrorists takes time.
Our take: Putin’s diplomatic and military strategy was always a delicate gambit, with a lot of unpredictable elements. The terrorists and armed gangs holed up in Idlib have nowhere to go; this is their last stand. The refugees have no choice but to flee the fighting toward Turkey. And Assad and his forces are wild cards, because of either fog-of-war misfires, by Assad testing Putin’s red lines, or both; we still don’t know the reason for the Syrian attack on the Turks. And then there is Iran (see below), which remains committed to the fight in Syria. With the M4/M5 nodes nearly secured, Putin, as we explained here last week, may call for a pause in the Syrian assault to get his long-shot diplomacy back on track. Now he has to contend with the United States, which has an opening, if a small one, to try to create some daylight between Erdogan and Putin in Syria. The best chance for Syria, and the Syrian people, who have suffered more than enough, would be if Washington and Moscow could come to terms on a plan together.
Read more: Laura Rozen has the report here on the press gaggle today by US Syria envoy James Jeffrey; Kirill Semenov here on Russia’s possible next moves; Semih Idiz here on the prospect of Turkey turning to the West; and Cengiz Candar here on how Libya also is testing Russian-Turkish ties.
2. Iran reassures Assad it’s not giving up the fight in Syria
Iran remains committed to Damascus, a sign that there is so far no change in its regional posture since the US killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani Jan. 3.
Iran in the fight: While most of the attention has been on the Syrian and Russian forces in Idlib and Aleppo, Iran has also been part of the fight:
The Daily Telegraph reported Jan. 26, based on alleged radio intercepts, that Iran-backed Afghan fighters, known as the Fatemiyoun Division, perhaps numbering 400-800, have been fighting in Idlib.
Metin Gurcan reports that a “pro-Iranian militia opened a new front in the area between western Aleppo and northwestern Idlib in early January … The Russian-backed regime forces and the pro-Iranian militia will apparently try to unite the two fronts by April and take full control of the M4 highway to the south and the M5 highway to the east, which connects Aleppo to Damascus. For the Turkish-backed armed opposition, this would mean losing about 45% of the territory it currently controls in the Idlib region.”
Iranian sources announced the death this week of IRGC leader Asghar Pashapour, who was close to Soleimani, in battles around Aleppo, according to Asharq al-Awsat.
Iran’s reassurance strategy: Hamidreza Azizi writes from Tehran that the killing of Soleimani, “resulted in speculation that Iran would start to lose influence in Syria. Such a possibility appeared to cause concern even for Assad, who quickly decided to dispatch his intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk to Tehran to talk with Iranian officials about their ‘coordination’ during the next stage of the civil war. Iran’s recent involvement in Idlib could be seen as both trying to send a message to its rivals that its power and influence in Syria have remained intact, and reassuring Assad that he can still count on Tehran’s support where and when needed.”
3. Look who’s talking … Zarif reaches out to Palestinian leaders
Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the Trump administration’s Middle East Peace to Prosperity plan “stupid,” adding that it will achieve “no results” and “will die before Trump dies.”
With that in mind, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a flurry of calls with Palestinian leaders today to express their shared rejection of the plan.
His call list included Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, lslamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah and Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh.
Our take: Expect Iran to brandish its pro-Palestinian credentials by expressing solidarity with all Palestinian factions. Unlike US-friendly Arab capitals, Tehran has no interests in getting the Palestinians to talk with the United States and Israel. While Zarif expressed the need for Palestinian “unity” in response to the plan, and Iran has sought to strengthen ties with the Palestinian Authority over the past year, Iran’s advantage, and limited role, is furthered by stoking divisions and encouraging a harder line among its allies Hamas and, to a lesser extent, Islamic Jihad, as we reported here last week.
Read more: Check out the piece here by Ahmad Abu Amer in Gaza on how the Trump plan has undermined an Israel-Hamas cease-fire.
One other cool thing:
‘For Sama’: Next stop, Oscars
“For Sama” is “a documentary that depicts an Aleppan mother's struggle to raise her daughter amid the Syrian war, won the best documentary award at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). The modest-budget film is also one of the few from the Middle East to make the 2020 Academy Awards' short list for best documentary.” Read the article here by Orwoa Kanawati.
What we're reading ... and why:
Latest DoD IG report on US counter-IS campaign in Syria and Iraq
US CENTCOM and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) differ on the status of Islamic State (IS) in Syria, according to the recent quarterly report of the US Department of Defense Inspector General on the counter-IS campaigns in Syria and Iraq. While CENTCOM assessed that IS remained intact, it was not in a position to “significantly advance its insurgency.” The DIA, however, reported that IS attacks have increased since the Turkish incursion in October 2019, and that IS views the post-invasion environment “as conducive to its operations.” Read the report here.
In case you missed it:
Word Bank backgrounder on Lebanon’s economic crisis
This report was released late January and lays out the structural challenges to economic stabilization in Lebanon. Among the observations: “Under the guise of preserving post-war confessional balances, a post-war elite emerged to command the main economic resources, both private and public, generating large rents and dividing the spoils of uncompetitive markets and a dysfunctional and hallowed state.” Read the report here.
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