Astana floored by Russian pick as Assad successor
Syrian government and rebel groups launch a fresh peace conference in the Kazakh capital of Astana Monday, Jan.23 in freezing temperatures of minus 20 Centigrade. Although the event is jointly sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, Moscow is the real power-broker.
debkafile’s intelligence sources reveal that the delegations on both sides of the table were caught off-balance by the arrival of Bashar Assad’s former close friend, Gen. Manas Tlass, whom Russia flew in from his place of exile in a Gulf emirate to a prominent seat with the opposition delegation.
Gen. Tlass, 53, son of the eminent Gen. Mustafa Tlass, defense minister under President Hafez Assad, was awarded high honors by his son Bashar as one of his closest friends. Although appointed commander of the prestigious 104th Brigade in the Syrian Republican Guard, Manas chose to defect and flee the country in 2012, not long after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising.
Our sources report that Moscow has chosen him as lead player in Syria’s post-Assad era, initially in the transition government in Damascus which is scheduled to start evolving from the peace process kicked off at Astana this week. This does not imply that Bashar Assad will be gone in a day – only that a new mechanism will be put in place to start curtailing his powers.
How quickly and how far this process will unfold cannot yet be determined.
Iran threatens to be one of the main obstacles to any reduction in Assad’s powers. For Tehran, he stands as a bulwark against the expulsion of its own and Hizballah forces from the country. As long as he is in charge, Iran will have the use of a land bridge to Lebanon and its proxy, Hizballah, via Iraq and Syria.
At the same time, Russia, Turkey and the Syrian rebel groups backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia are demanding the removal from Syrian soil of Iranian forces and pro-Iranian Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias (30,000 fighters in all) as well as the 10,000 Hizballah combatants.
Neither Hizballah, nor the Shiite militias are represented at the Astana conference which leaves them deliberately at a disadvantage.
But Iran is preparing to make its removal from Syria as difficult as possible. One way is to start dominating Syria’s strategic infrastructure. And so, on Jan. 18. Syrian Prime Minister Emad Khamis, who was on a visit to Tehran, signed five accords granting Iran exclusive rights as the sole operator and developer of Syria’s country’s cell phone network.
And, according to our intelligence sources, a number of secret provisions were buried in those deals. One gave Iran permission to interlink the cell phone networks between Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon as a device to guarantee the Lebanese terror group’s permanent presence in Syria.
Deliberations at the Astana conference will focus at its first sessions Monday on stabilizing the ceasefire between government and Syrian rebel groups (excluding the jihadist ISIS and Nusra Front). This ceasefire has for the most part held up since it went into effect late last month.
The effort to turn the truce into a more permanent cessation of hostilities will be long and arduous, entailing negotiations on such tough issues as land swaps and rights to use main traffic and supply routes. Only when they are resolved, can the two sides approach the next stage, a discussion of Syria’s political future, i.e. the fate of the regime headed by Bashar Assad.
Although Moscow invited the new Trump administration to send a representative to the Kazakh conference, it was declined. Washington only sent the US ambassador to Kazakhstan to attend as an observer.
This does not mean that President Donald Trump has decided to leave the resolution of the Syrian issue solely in Russian hands. Washington and Moscow are still in the middle of discussing this and other critical questions and no final decisions have been reached in either capital.