It will be a tough call to get Iran and Turkey to really cooperate and monitor the ceasefire in Syria as required by the trilateral deal both countries signed with Russia in Astana, Kazakhstan January 24. But let us hope for the best as it is indeed unbearable to see the bloodbath in Syria continue even one day more.
The talks in Astana focused on enforcing the ceasefire which is grossly violated on daily bases. This is the right step. There can never be talks on substance as long as the killing machines are on. But assigning the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) to report violations by IRGC sponsored militias on the ground strikes us as a naïve proposition. The same goes for Turkey, which backs some opposition groups as well.
However, the Turks seem to be genuinely trying to cooperate. There ties to the Nusra Front seem to have been reduced to zero if not to open hostility. Abu Muhammad Al Maqdisi, a prominent Al Qaeda theoretician based in Jordan, blamed the Turks for changing their position on Assad and for their cooperation with Moscow.
Simultaneously, the Free Syrian Army, backed by Turkey, started a large-scale offensive against Nusra in Idlib. Furthermore, and precisely as we expected, the diplomatic effort is splitting the general body of the opposition. Nusra attacked the forces and positions of the groups which accepted to participate in Astana and the ceasefire. Nusra explained its attacks as “pre-emptive, before those groups cause a split in the opposition and move to working with the butcher Assad”, as a communique issued by the group said. Other organizations criticized Nusra for attacking the Astana organization. “They cause an internal fighting to prevent a split?”, one armed fighter said condemningly.
If we try to extract any general trend from events on the ground, we may conclude that the nature of the exchange between Russia and Turkey is based on the following formula: Russia helps Turkey liberate Al Bab from ISIL and establish a buffer zone clear of the PKK across its borders with Syria, in return for Turkey’s help to the Russians to liberate Idlib from Nusra. It is a sort of division of labor in a way that gives the two countries, Russia and Turkey, what they seek, on the expense of ISIL, Nusra and the PKK.
In reality, this formula is not always that clear cut. Turkish backed Euphrates Shield (ES) forces, for example, failed to capture Al Bab. Russia moved several units of the Assad army to attack Al Bab. Could anyone have imagined a few months ago that Turkish forces will be attacking the same target which is attacked by Assad forces and Russian planes?
As the features of this new reality in Syria emerge slowly on the ground, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that the Trump administration is opened to working with Moscow to fight ISIL in Syria. This will create the unbelievable coalition of Russia, the US, Turkey, Assad and, at least theoretically, Iran, fighting together-yes, together- against ISIL, Nusra and their allies under the leadership of Moscow. Miracles happen! But no worry. The US will still lead, though only from behind. The first raw is already reserved.
The only problematic member in this unbelievable coalition is Iran. Turkey, Iran, and the Syrian armed opposition expressed some dissatisfaction with the direction of the developments on the ground.
Some Iranian think tanks insisted that the right policy is not to stand idle, helplessly watching the Turkish-Russian design implementation at the expense of Iranian interests in Syria. Those researchers recommended a strong Iranian involvement on the diplomatic track to shape the outcome of Russia’s game plan as much as possible. Other Iranian commentators recommended a totally different approach-that of resisting the Russian-Turkish plan from the start.
Those who are familiar with Iran’s methods expect Tehran to walk simultaneously in both tracks-that is to say remains involved in the talks and continue trying, at the same time, to consolidate gains on the ground if not expand them further. In moments when walking on the track of gains’ consolidation, if an unreconcilable conflict with the terms agreed upon in negotiations appears, Tehran will fully use its pre-prepared margin of deniability: The Shia militias.
The Shia militias, including Hezbollah, are not, in any official sense, part of the Iranian official delegation. Therefore, if they violate any agreement signed by Tehran, the IRGC can easily claim that they did that on their own.
Russia will play the role of the balancer between the Turks and the Syrian opposition on the one hand, and Iran and Assad on the other hand. Speaking about the trilateral operative group to monitor the cease fire, the head of the Russian delegation in Astana, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, said that Russia does not make distinctions as to which side violated the ceasefire and said that both sides have breached the truce. At the same time, he stressed the importance of prompt verification about the violations and added that many reports on such issues are fabricated.
It will require quite an effort from the Russians to guarantee that the ceasefire is respected. The head of the Syrian delegation in Astana, Bashar Al Jaafari, said that he viewed the role of Turkey in the Syrian ceasefire as negative, but had to agree to cooperate to facilitate the peace process. “In politics, sometimes we have to deal with enemies to save your country, and this is what we do”, he said.
The opposition also expressed reluctance and pessimism on the extent to which both Assad and Iran will respect the deal. Mohammed Alloush, leader of the Jaysh Al-Islam group, who headed the delegation of the Syrian armed opposition at the Astana talks, said the rebels support a political solution based on UN auspices, while demanding the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Alloush added, however, that the Syrian opposition would not engage in any talks with Iran and would not accept any statement by Tehran on Syria’s future. He said that he had given a proposal to Russia on the ceasefire, and expects an answer within a week.
The main question raised by the opposition is simple: Why are the Iranians participating in the talks? Iran is not a neighbor of Syria and it does not have any justification to explain its presence in Astana, other than the presence of its militias on the ground in Syria. And through those militias, the main threat to the Astana deal surfaces.
Where will events go from here?
There are two set of factors that determine the answer to this question. First, there is the extent to which the ceasefire will really be implemented and respected, second, there is the individual strategies of the participants in the Astana talks and the degree to which they will respond to pressures or to which they voluntarily accept to cooperate.
The Assad government said, for example, that its operations in Wadi Barada area, close to Damascus, will continue in spite of the ceasefire. While we do not think that this will threaten the Astana deal, if Assad tried to expand his operations, the ceasefire will certainly collapse. Ankara has an interest to get the deal to work as it is committed to improving its ties with Moscow. Assad will tilt towards Moscow if Iran pressures him, and will tilt towards Tehran if the Russians pressure him. But in both cases, he is not the decider. Putin is.
The future of Syria will not be decided in the next month Geneva conference. It will be decided in the count down to this conference. If the ceasefire works, it will create its own set of new realities. And if it does not, the tragedy will go on.