Russia shows no signs of ditching Iran over Syria

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Article Summary
Turkey rallies jihadi armed groups to its side in Idlib; Lebanon backs Russian plan for Syrian refugees.

Bolton-Patrushev talks stumble on Iran

We wrote in this column more than a year ago, "Russia welcomes and needs US partnership in stabilizing Syria" while also saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin's "leverage with Damascus, Tehran and Ankara could be weakened, rather than strengthened, by closer ties with the United States. … Putin’s endgame is relief from US-led sanctions. If no sanctions relief is forthcoming, Putin will have little interest in carrying Trump’s water at the expense of his regional ties."

This was the underlying theme in Geneva on Aug. 23 when US national security adviser John Bolton and his Russian counterpart, Nikolay Patrushev, struggled to find common ground on Iran’s role in Syria in the first high-ranking talks between US and Russian officials since the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on July 16.

“On the Middle East track, the issue of Iran and Syria appears to have been the most contested. The United States waved off a Russian proposal on the pullback of Iranian forces in Syria in exchange for softening sanctions on Tehran,” writes Maxim Suchkov.

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Prior to Geneva, Bolton had visited Israel, where he said that Putin had told Trump that Russia’s “interest and Iran’s were not exactly the same [in Syria]. So we’re obviously going to talk to him about what role they can play. … We’re going see what we and others can agree in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria. But the one prerequisite there is the withdrawal of all Iranian forces back in Iran.”

The Aug. 15 imposition of further US sanctions on Russia cast a pall over the meeting, where Patrushev gave Bolton a set of proposals to consider for the next round of talks. As we wrote here last month, “Putin is not someone who works for free. If he believes he is helping Trump to achieve a responsible exit from Syria, while assuring Israel’s security, this is big stuff, and the Russian president also needs a win from the art of the deal. For Putin, that means relief from at least some of the US sanctions on Russia.”

“The discussion wasn’t much better on the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” adds Suchkov. “The United States had said earlier that it is concerned about the situation in Idlib and promised a strong response if a chemical attack ordered by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad takes place. The Russians, for their part, fear this could be a pretext for yet another strike on Syria following a militant provocation.”

Absent some quid quo pro involving sanctions relief, Russia is keeping all its options open with Iran, including “reportedly making preparations to establish a regional integrated payment network,” writes Moziar Motamedi, which “could serve as a gateway for Iran to notably boost its commercial ties with other member countries.”

And in another sign of the pace and direction of Russian and Iranian diplomacy, both Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani joined the heads of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to sign a landmark agreement on the legal status of the Caspian and other multilateral agreements in Aktau on Aug. 12.

“By signing on to the Aktau convention, Iran has managed to gain a number of significant security guarantees while freezing the longstanding conflicts regarding the exact shares of the body of water and postponing decisions on such issues to an unspecified time in the future,” writes Hamidreza Azizi. “At the same time, Iran’s cooperative stance could help it further develop relations with its northern neighbors. Indeed, the latter is of vital importance to the current situation, as Iran faces increasing efforts by the United States to limit the scope of its international interactions.”

Did Turkey invite al-Qaeda affiliate to join rebel faction?

Russia is further unlikely to ditch Iran with uncertainty over Turkey’s intentions and capabilities in Idlib. 

“Based on leaks to the media and information learned on the ground, a comprehensive strategy is emerging: Turkey wants to give the appearance of having deterrent power with its own military assets and to set up a joint front with organizations that control parts of Idlib,” reports Fehim Tastekin. “Meanwhile, Turkey is reinforcing its observation posts with concrete walls and air defense weapons. Though concrete barriers are designed to deter threats from groups that frequently clash with each other, the air defenses can only be for use against Russia and Syria. …Turkey obviously has no plans to leave the areas it controls and is busy trying to consolidate the clashing groups under one roof. Ankara’s goal is to free these groups from the terrorist label and prove that they have become reasonable interlocutors.”

Turkey appears willing to accept any and all armed groups into the big tent of the National Liberation Front (NLF), even extending an invitation to none other than Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Idlib. While Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has held off, extremist groups Ahrar al-Sham and Naour al-din al-Zenki have joined under the banner of the Syrian Liberation Front. Both groups are deeply sectarian and enforce Sharia law in areas they control.

Tastekin writes that the NLF, despite claiming 85,000-1000,000 fighters, is “essentially a survival ploy by the factions to foil attempts to eliminate them" and "doesn’t offer a path to a solution. NLF members won't necessarily do everything Turkey wants, and they won't take their cues from the Astana process. Most of them do feel they owe something to Turkey and can be pragmatic in their relations with Ankara, but they are basically outfits that have their own foreign connections and financial resources, dedicated to their own ideologies. …Turkey ensures their loyalty by paying their salaries and providing ammunition and logistical support. While equipping and training these groups in the Euphrates Shield area of operations, the intention was to put all the groups in Idlib under Turkey’s control. ... In short, these groups, although pretending to heed Turkey, still do what they want.” 

Even if Hayat Tahrir al-Sham stays out of the NLF, adds Tastekin, “there is still significant jihadi-Salafi potential among groups that in the past operated with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State and today follow the global jihad line of al-Qaeda. … These outfits include scores of foreigners in their command ranks and fighting cadres. Foreign jihadis that have opened branches in Syria have also settled in Idlib. There are Caucasian, Uzbek and Kyrgyz fighters. The Turkistan Islamic Party of Uighurs, which China is chasing in East Turkistan, is another capable group. Uighurs also control the city of Jisr al Shughour in Idlib province.”

“In such an ungovernable region of jihadi-Salafi rivalry, even among supposed allies, where there are constant breakups and new alliances and where scores are routinely settled by assassinations and bombings,” Tastekin continues, “Turkey is talking of distinguishing moderates from terrorists — but without explaining what it wants to achieve. Is Turkey concocting a bargaining chip it can put forth at talks in Astana or Geneva, or is it forming a front ready to fight? “

Lebanese backs Russian plan for Syrian refugees

Russia is seeking to capitalize on the return of Syrian refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) to those areas retaken by Syrian government forces. Since the beginning of 2018, the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that “nearly 13,000 refugees from neighboring countries and another 750,000 IDPs are estimated to have returned to their homes in Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Rural Damascus, Damascus, southwest and northeastern Syria.” The 750,000 figure represents 11% of the over 6 million Syrian IDPs. 

While most media have missed, or ignored, this trend, Russian diplomacy has seized on it to press for humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance in areas under Syrian government control. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil endorsed the Russian-Syrian efforts to repatriate in a visit to Moscow on Aug. 20. There are close to a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to UNHCR.

Anton Mardasov reports that while some Lebanese politicians, including those aligned with Prime Mister Saad Hariri, may challenge the Russian-Syrian effort, “taking geographic and political realities into account, Hariri is likely to soften his position on the Syrian regime.” Lebanon’s citizens, and ultimately all its politicians, realize the unsustainable political and economic strain of a million refugees on its soil.

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Found in: john bolton, refugee return, lebanese domestic politics, iranian intervention, russia’s syria policy, turkey-syrian border, idlib, nlf, hayat tahrir al-sham
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