The recent Astana talks failed to deliver a clear agreement. Although a ceasefire was announced, forces on the ground questioned its validity, and there was more pessimism than optimism following the talks.
Astana was hardly about finding a solution. Instead, it was a show of force. Russia wanted to show the world that the key decision makers on the Syria issue were now Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran. Astana would be where agreements would be made. Not Geneva or Vienna. There were no US or EU representatives. Moreover, it wanted to present itself as a viable peacemaker after its initial gung-ho approach drew much international ire and unwanted attention. Lebanon and Iraq, whose governments can generally be described as being heavily influenced by Tehran, were invited as observers. With Turkey somewhat representing the anti-Assad movement, Russia will argue that the Astana conference represents the key powers and influences in Syria today. Whether it succeeded in giving out this image remains up for discussion.
However, this did not hide the cracks that are emerging in the Assad-Iran-Russia triumvirate.
This time, Russia appeared to genuinely back the proposal of the establishment of a constitutional committee which would be formed of regime and opposition figures and revise contentious clauses within the constitution. Such contentious clauses include those that relate to the exclusivity of the Baath party, the illegality of alternative parties, presidential term limits, and election rules. The representative of the opposition hailed a clear shift in Russia’s stance and expressed optimism.
However, the regime delegation expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal and the role of other actors such as Turkey. Although a ceasefire was agreed (and very soon broken), not much else came of the talks.
Assad’s disgruntlement over Turkey is natural. Turkey has been backing anti-Assad forces and provided the necessary logistics to prevent Assad from making inroads in Idlib.
However, it would be superficial to suggest that Assad’s frustration is solely caused by Turkey and those forces opposed to him. Rather, it has been significantly exacerbated by his own allies Russia and Iran who have begun to drag their feet over the issue of Idlib.
Assad is keen on retaking Idlib and announcing an end to the conflict once and for all. He has launched multiple offensives seeking to retake the city and suffered disproportionate losses including hundreds of soldiers and dozens of tanks. However, although he has been supported by Russian air strikes, he has become acutely aware of a genuine warming of ties between Moscow and Ankara. Assad has come to suspect that the Russians are not keen on alienating Ankara by restoring Idlib to Assad and he will have been particularly concerned by Russia’s growing support for a constitutional committee.
Russia’s cooling over the idea of an Idlib offensive should not be seen as unusual. Moscow is aware that Ankara is not involved in Syria because it is against Assad. Moscow believes, and with good reason, that Turkey’s heavy investment in Syria in supporting anti-Assad groups has more to do with what Ankara perceives as a potentially existential threat in the armed Kurdish groups that are seeking to establish the foundations of an independent state which would threaten to plunge Turkey into a bitter domestic civil war. Without assurances from the US, Russia, or Assad over the future of these Kurdish groups, Turkey believes that it is paramount that it continues to have a strong hand in Syria by backing armed groups and even sending in Turkish soldiers to secure the border. Turkey has been engaged in negotiations with the US over the establishment of a 30-35km safe zone. However, the US, keen not to further antagonise the Kurds after the breakdown of trust following Washington’s refusal to back Iraqi Kurds in their independence bid, have openly rejected the idea and sought to negotiate a narrower corridor.
Moreover, Turkey is well aware that any successful offensive on Idlib on the part of Assad’s forces will cause a migrant exodus to the Turkish-Syrian border, adding to the economic strain that Erdogan is currently struggling with. Having received little support in the past from partners on this front, including the European Union, Turkey is firm in its belief that it is in its interests to maintain a strong hand in Syria, and to have a military presence in the North that can act to preserve these interests.
In light of this, Moscow sees genuine room for growing cooperation and recognises a significant PR coup in securing an ally of NATO as a partner. Turkey has already purchased S400 missiles instead of US Patriot missiles. Moscow has suggested that Turkey can also purchase fighter jets given that Ankara has been kicked out of the F-35 program. Therefore, the Russians are not keen on antagonising the Turks unnecessarily.
At the same time, it does not want to force Assad into a corner. Moscow does not feel bound by Assad. Russia instead backs the regime and is happy to see changes to the leadership as long as Damascus leans towards its orbit and not Washington. Moscow will have noticed that Assad seems to be sensing this shift in attitude. He has embarked on a government reshuffle and sought to shore up his power in Damascus to fend off the possibility of internal factions becoming too powerful, in order to close off any possible alternatives to himself.
Assad’s other ally also appears to be dragging its feet on Idlib. Iran sees no need to send its militias North and has no interest in Idlib. Its aim was never the preservation of the Syrian state; only the protection of the land bridge it has painstakingly worked on for years that stretches from Tehran, through Iraq, into Southern Syria and then Lebanon which would grant Tehran access to the Mediterranean. This bridge is otherwise known as the ‘Shia crescent’. With Iran’s militias operating in the South, Iran has begun setting up cultural centres in a bid to promote is ideas and ideology to cement its influence in a similar manner to the way it has done in Iraq and Southern Lebanon.
Assad also has another problem. His forces’ offensives on Idlib have failed to secure headway yet he cannot bring in extensive reinforcements from other provinces for fear of renewed uprisings. Damascus was hit by a fuel crisis in April 2019 leading to long queues and the regime has slashed subsidies as production wanes. Other areas may have been seized from the opposition or other rebel groups. However, this does not mean that Assad’s forces have managed to bring about sufficient stability and governance to enable him to reorganise his forces for an effective offensive on Idlib.
Assad will resume his advance on Idlib. Russia is likely to provide support but only in so far as it facilitates a protracted conflict. Although Russia is satisfied that the regime will survive, it has expressed an interest in cementing itself in Syria. Until it does, it cannot end its raison d’etre for being in Syria which is the war itself. Turkey will continue to back the factions in Idlib. Iran will continue to reject Assad’s overtures to march North towards Idlib.
In other words, the war goes on…