By Riad Kahwaji*
Ongoing Russian efforts to end the seven-year-long Syrian war have slim chance of success due to several factors, mostly related to Iran’s expanding role in the region, rising Israeli threat perception and the complex nature of the Syrian domestic scene that is prolonging peace talks and exasperating the problem of some 9 million Syrian refugees.
After a two-hour-long one-on-one summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin is now the main broker entrusted to end this conflict there. But Russia’s diplomacy and military are operating in a rapidly evolving volatile environment where many things are happening in the background and foreground of the Syrian theater, such as:
- Israel is launching almost weekly strikes on Iranian Revolutionary Guards positions in Syria and is warning of large-scale offensive to drive back the IRGC and Shiite militias from its northern borders.
- Iran’s threat perceptions are at all time high as a result of heated rhetorical exchanges with President trump who cancelled the nuclear deal with Iran and is about to impose tough sanctions on its oil and gas exports
- The Syrian regime, supported by Russian airpower, is preparing for a major offensive to recapture the last strongholds for the Syrian opposition in the northern part of the country along the borders with Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has warned the Syrian regime against attacking Idlib. Ankara is demanding that the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib be placed under its supervision and has already sent troops in there.
- Millions of displaced Syrians have no homes to return to due to the massive scale destruction caused by the war in most of the country’s major cities and towns, especially in the predominantly Muslim Sunni neighborhoods. The international community, specifically Western powers have already said they will only provide funds for Syria’s reconstruction when a final political settlement is reached to the conflict there
- The political talks between warring Syrian factions remain far from over despite ten rounds of talks and strong pressure from various international players.
- Terrorist gunmen of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remain active in Syria despite being driven from most of the territories they once occupied in the country. The Syrian regime granted several weeks ago the remaining ISIS fighters around Damascus a safe passage to the southeastern desert areas of the country, enabling them to harass and strike in the predominantly Duze province of Suweida. The Syrian Druze community did not join the rebels, but has refused to allow the regime to draft its young men in the military to fight the rebels. Some Druze leaders believe that the regime has sent ISIS in their direction to pressure them to enlist their men within its regular forces and militias. The Syrian regime is suffering from acute shortages in manpower within the military and is relying heavily on Iranian-supplied Shiite militias, IRGC officers and Hizbullah fighters in its confrontations with the rebels. However, Russia wishes to end the regime’s dependence on Iranian-backed militias as first step to get Iran out of Syria.
- The cold war between Iran and some Arab states led by Saudi Arabia continues with intensity on the Yemeni, Iraqi and Lebanese theaters. Both Iraq and Lebanon are witnessing political crisis due to the inability of their respective parties to form governments there. In the meantime, Saudi-led forces are pushing back Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on various fronts for the control of the country.
The Helsinki summit seems to have secured the Trump Administration support to Putin’s plans in Syria. First signs of this came through the visit by the political leadership of the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party militias which control the northeastern part of the country. Some 2,000 U.S. special forces are based there assisting the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in policing the area east of the Euphrates River (nearly 30% of Syria’s territory) and keeping it safe from ISIS attacks.
Also, joint Russian-U.S. committees were formed to facilitate the return of nearly 3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. But this repatriation process requires billions of dollars to house these refugees, create jobs and most important of all maintain their safety and security from reprisals by Syrian regime gunmen.
The Helsinki Summit revealed that Israel’s safety will be a priority in whatever agreement U.S. and Russia reached. This was evident in the subsequent joint press conference where both leaders emphasized Israel’s security and safeguarding its interests. But getting Iran to simply withdraw from Syria after all what Tehran has invested financially, politically and in thousands of IRGC and Shiite gunmen killed and wounded there will not be easy at all. Many observers do wonder whether Russia has the capability to pressure Iran to pull out or even the desire to do so knowing in advance its need for manpower to help the regime stay in control of the country.
Russia might be hoping that a quick return of millions of Syrian refugees will provide the regime with recruits for its military and end its reliance on Iranian-supplied manpower. But will Syrian Sunni men returning with the refugees be willing to join the regime forces after all what has happened of bloodshed and sectarian killings? Will the Israelis be willing to indefinitely wait for the Russians to convince the Iranians to leave while currently watching the IRGC build its arsenal of missiles and advanced weapons in Syria?
The Israelis are clearly growing impatient with the Iranian buildup inside Syria. A Russian delegation led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that visited Israel after the Helsinki Summit failed to convince the Israeli government to accept an Iranian military presence 100 kilometers away from its norther borders with Syria. So, Russia appears for now to be giving Israel a free hand to strike any Iranian target in Syria the latter deems a threat. However, Israel is anxiously watching whether the IRGC or their allied militias will infiltrate Syrian regime lines and entrench themselves along its borders disguised as Syrian regular troops. It will be very hard for the Russians to prevent this infiltration and tell whether the so-called Syrian regular troops in the Golan Heights are not actually Iranian Shiite militias. Moreover, now that Iran has established the land corridor connecting its western borders with the Syrian coast, it will be very hard to see it give it up without a fight. Therefore, it is a matter of time before the Israeli-Iranian clash erupts in Syria.
Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” to end the Arab-Israeli struggle might see a break in a scenario in which Russia would succeed in driving Iran out of Syria and asserting Syrian President Bashar Assad in power within a political process to end the Syrian conflict. Trump is yet to announce the details of his Middle East peace plan, but his initial step of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has stripped him of anticipated support from U.S. Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia. Israel wants to keep the Golan Heights which it captured from Syria in the 1967 War and later annexed it. The Israeli government has already indicated that it would prefer to see Assad stay in power in Syria, and if the Russians break the regime’s links with Tehran then the weak and vulnerable Syrian leadership will likely be opened to a peace deal in which Israel would keep control of the strategic plateau. This will create a whole new reality in the Middle East, bolster chances of peace and completely isolate Iran regionally. But yet again, Iran has Hezbollah in Lebanon and thousands of militiamen in Syria and funds major Palestinian guerrilla groups in the Gaza Strip, and would likely resort to all of these players to abort efforts to kick it out of Syria or restart the Syrian-Israeli peace talks.
The talks between warring Syrian factions under UN-Russian auspices are yet to make any tangible progress. While the Russians and the Americans push for a new decentralized federal system, the regime and Iran want to keep the system centralized with limited steps to share power with the opposition. Assad and Tehran appear determined to continue the military offensive to recapture all Syrian territories and impose their version of the political solution. However capturing the remaining territories out of regime control will be an extremely tough task. Turkish leaders have already warned against any attacks on Idlib and are bolstering their positions in areas under their direct or indirect control, while the Kurdish areas enjoy U.S. protection.
Therefore, the Russians appear at odds with Iran and the regime on the future of Syria. The Syrian regime is extremely rigid and sectarian-based and any major changes – like decentralization – will eventually mean change of status quo and loss of the Alawite minority’s monopoly on power in the country. Also, decentralization or federalism will mean many parts of the country will not welcome Iranian influence. Hence, whatever roadmap or plan put at Helsinki, Moscow will have a very tough ride ahead and might have to make some difficult decisions on its alliances and designs in Syria and regionally.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 28 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.