1. In Syria, eyes on Putin’s next move
‘Acutely vulnerable’: UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen has called for a nationwide cease-fire in Syria in response to the first reported case of COVID-19 in Syria. The Syrian government this week acknowledged its first five cases of coronavirus, some or all of them originating in Iran. In response, the government has shut down public transportation; closed schools, restaurants, parks and most public institutions; and implemented a curfew. The border with Lebanon is closed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad decreed a wide-ranging amnesty, allowing for the release of many prisoners from jails to prevent the spread of the virus.
Pedersen said Syrians are “acutely vulnerable” to a widespread outbreak. Syria’s health sector is in disrepair after nine years of war. There is steady traffic from Iran to Syria; Iran’s Mahan Air is still flying to Damascus, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sends its people and supplies across the border from Iraq. In areas outside of government control, there are 6.2 million internally displaced people in Syria — the largest of any country in the world. The Syrian offensive in Idlib alone generated another 900,000 displaced Syrians, who are living in crowded and miserable conditions.
Syrian Kurds accept cease-fire, implement lockdown: With the Syrian government announcement, the autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria imposed its own lockdown, curfew and cancellation of school and public events, while sealing its borders, except for humanitarian and medical deliveries. The region has only 16 hospitals and 11 adult respirators. “The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) calls on all parties of the Syrian conflict to refrain from any military initiatives or actions,” the SDF said in a statement March 24. The primarily Kurdish SDF, which partnered with the US-led coalition in Syria to fight the Islamic State, is seeking a “humanitarian” truce. Amberin Zaman and our staff have the reports here and here.
Turkey weighs next move: The main adversary of the SDF is Turkey, not the Syrian government. Turkey sent its forces and proxies into northeast Syria in October 2019 to both neutralize the threat from Syrian Kurds, which Ankara considers terrorists, and establish a safe zone to transfer some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The SDF has since had its own understanding with Damascus. Meanwhile, Turkey’s forces and proxies have again shut down the water supply to the northeastern city of Hasakah and other areas under Kurdish control, as Zaman explains here.
Putin gets busy: Russian President Vladimir Putin is not one to let a good crisis go to waste. He spoke with Assad by phone March 20 to discuss the March 5 Russia-Turkey cease-fire agreement in Idlib and related issues. Three days later, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was in Damascus to discuss further de-escalation in Idlib and related matters, including new protocols regarding contact between Russian military and their counterparts because of COVID-19, and is already sending assistance to the Syrian government to deal with the crisis, as Maxim Suchkov reports here. Suchkov adds that Putin has invested a lot of political capital in the cease-fire with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and does not want to see that fall apart.
Why it matters: The UAE and Iran have been bitter adversaries. The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, are also steadfast partners of the United States in backing “maximum pressure” and supporting a credible military deterrent against Iran. Iran’s ballistic missiles directly threaten the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such as what occurred in September 2019, when Iranian drones and missiles attacked Saudi Aramco facilities.
Erdogan has no answers: As we wrote here last month, Syria is Erdogan’s and Turkey’s “endless war.” There are no easy answers or offramps for him. There are 3.6 million refugees in Turkey who can’t easily be sent back to Syria. There are possibly a million or more displaced Syrians massing on the closed Syrian-Turkish border. The conflict with Syria in Idlib, in the west of Syria, could be complicated if the SDF, working with Damascus, opens a second front in the northeast against Turkish troops and their proxies occupying territory there. Erdogan’s complicated relationship with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the radical jihadi group in Idlib, has been a roadblock in fulfilling Ankara’s obligations to Moscow in the cease-fire, as Semih Idiz reports. The United States and the UN Security Council have designated HTS a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda. And now Erdogan must deal with the coronavirus, whose numbers (1,872 confirmed cases in Turkey as we go to press) and economic costs are skyrocketing. Ayla Jean Yackley has the latest here.
State Department calls for release of arbitrarily detained citizens: The US State Department called on the Syrian government March 25 to immediately release “all civilians [including US citizens] arbitrarily detained; … grant impartial and independent entities, including medical and health organizations, access to regime detention facilities … [and] cease all hostilities and allow the unabated flow of humanitarian assistance to IDP camps within Syria, in addition to releasing tens of thousands of civilians arbitrarily detained in regime detention centers in order to mitigate the disastrous spread of the virus.”
Our take: Putin views the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to press ahead with two objectives: progress on an agreement between Ankara and Damascus, leveraging the Kurds along the way, and the incremental legitimization of ties with the Syrian government. Both are long shots. Putin’s shuttle diplomacy between Ankara and Damascus in January blew up into all-out conflict between Turkey and Syria over Idlib. Russia has called for the United States to lift sanctions on Iran in response to the pandemic; expect Moscow soon to pick up the same charge for Syria. The Trump administration has been steadfast against any attempts at normalizing Assad, and is unlikely to give in now. It will seek workarounds with regional partners and aid organizations to avoid empowering the Syrian dictator. The point here is not that Putin’s efforts will necessarily succeed, but they bear watching.
Read more: Max Suchkov explains the background and rationale for Putin’s oil price war with Saudi Arabia here.