A New Russian Proposal And A Battle For The South
Russia is extremely active in search of a diplomatic way forward in the Syria conflict. Last month talks were held in Russia with the Syrian foreign minister and the Iranian foreign minister. New plans were discussed and agreed upon.
A few days ago Russia’s foreign minister had talks with the U.S. Secretary of State. This week a visit of Merkel to Putin followed. On the same day Putin had a phone-call with Trump. A new round of the Astana piece talks under Russian sponsorship with the Syrian opposition and a Syrian government delegation is ongoing. (Unlike before the U.S. dispatched a high State Department official to this round.) Today Putin met with the Turkish president Erdogan.
According to the documents obtained by Sputnik, Russia proposed to set up four security zones — in the Idlib province, to the north of the city of Homs, in Eastern Ghouta and in the south of the country.
The rough draft offers:
- – de-escalation zones aimed to “put an immediate end to the violence” and “to provide conditions for safe, voluntary return of refugees”
- – security zones or buffers created around the de-escalation zones with checkpoints and monitoring centers manned by Syrian government troops and “rebels”
- – military units from unspecified “observer countries” could be deployed to these security zones
- – Turkey, Iran and Russia are named as as guarantors and will create a joint working group immediately after the de-escalation is agreed upon between the Syrian parties.
The crux with the proposal is of course al-Qaeda which rules in Idleb and is also an important power in the other areas. Russia offers the de-escalation zones as a way to further negotiations and settlement only under the condition that al-Qaeda is eliminated from the zones. In the press conference with Erdogan Putin emphasized this position:
“About terrorists, in spite of creation of these zones the war on terror will be ongoing – against such organizations as so-called Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and those ones that are put on the list of terrorist organizations approved by the United Nations,” Putin said.
But by now the “rebels” are to a large part associated with Jabhat al-Nusra aka al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda terrorist hardcore is the backbone of their army. The U.S. sees al-Qaeda, at least temporarily, as a valuable proxy. They will surely not agree to give up on that.
The draft proposal is another attempt to get Turkey and the U.S. to finally admit that there is an al-Qaeda problem, that a UN designated terrorist organization is at the core of these areas, and that no peace can be achieved unless al-Qaeda and the associated elements are eliminated. I doubt very much that Turkey and the various sponsors of al-Qaeda in Syria will agree to that plan. The Russian government surely knows this but it sees an advantage in dragging the problem into the open whenever possible.
Meanwhile military operations continues throughout Syria. Turkey shelled Syrian-Kurdish areas in the north-east and in the north-west. It is pressing the U.S. to shun the Kurds as partner in the fight with ISIS and offers Turkish troops as replacement. But the U.S. does not agree with that plan. It sent a platoon of Ranger Regiment 75 up to the Kurdish held Syrian-Turkish border in the east to stop the Turkish shelling. Likewise Russia sent a platoon to the border in the western area around Afrin. That was a clear (coordinated?) message to Erdogan from the two big powers involved in the conflict.
Russia deployed airborne warning and control aircraft to Syria. These can detect enemy fighter approaches over 600 kilometer range and direct friendly aircraft against such targets.
In the east the Kurdish troops under the control of U.S. “advisors” have retrieved the city of Tabqa from the Islamic State. The Tabqa Euphrates dam right north of to city is still held by ISIS but will be the next target on the way to Raqqa. So far no further U.S. troops have arrived. There are rumors of a U.S. group concentrating in east Jordan ready to move up through the Syrian desert towards Raqqa. This would split Syria in half and establish an embattled eastern U.S. proxy enclave. I assume that this move has been held back for political reason but could proceed in any moment.
ISIS is also under pressure in the area around Palmyra where the Syrian army is recovering oil-fields and pushing ISIS further east.
ISIS responded to its defeat near Raqqa by dispatching five suicide bombers to Rajm al-Salibi, near Shaddadi, in Hassakeh province next to the Syrian-Iraqi border. This is deep in the Kurdish held areas. The bombers exploded next to Kurdish security forces barracks at a displaced persons camp. Some 30 people were killed. Another suicide bomb went off in “rebel” held areas near the western border with Turkey. The local “rebel” office for civilian services in Azaz was blown up and at least five people were killed.
Near Damascus renewed infighting is ongoing within the “rebel”-held east-Ghouta enclave (map). The “Islamic Army” under Mohammad Alloush is trying to create a monopoly of force in the area presumably to then negotiate some agreement with the Syrian government. Jaish al-Islam attacked the significant al-Qaeda contingent in the area. Over 120 fighters on the various “rebel” sides have been killed so far. The area is surrounded by the Syrian army which enjoys watching the fight.
The U.S., Jordan and Israel have a plan to install a southern “no fly zone” which means to occupy the south-western part of Syria. To achieve that they need to capture the city of Daraa which is the main administrative center for the area.
Daraa city is at the southern point of the government held area. It is under attack from US. controlled “rebel” forces but the Syrian army has held its area. The situation is dangerous for Damascus city. Israel could now march from the west through “rebel” held areas right to the doors of Damascus without any problem. To eliminate that danger Hizbullah has launched a large operation from the north along the Syrian-Israeli border towards the Quneitra area. At the same time forces move from around Damascus to evict “rebels” from the area. This could easily become a major battle involving “rebels”, Israeli and Jordanian forces on one side against Hizbullah and the Syrian army on the other.
Russia would clearly prefer to find a political solution instead of continuing or escalating the war. This even if it means to give up control over some parts of Syria. For the moment the U.S. seems ready to listen and may even agree to some deal. But there are still way to many spoilers on the ground 8ant their sponsors) who will do their best to disrupt any ceasefire or de-escalation attempts.
Pat Lang has long been urging for a big Syrian army attack on Idleb governate and city to eliminate al-Qaeda from the area. But the Syrian and Russian governments know that such a fight, with the too small forces they have, would bog down as long as the “rebels” and al-Qaeda get resupplied through the Turkish border. Their aim in the ongoing negotiations is to move the U.S. and Turkey into some agreement that would stop such supplies to those terrorists. Only when that happens can Idleb and all of Syria be freed.