Putin Picks up Trump’s Ball, Pushes Iran out of Syria at Astana Conference

The two-day Syria peace conference at Astana, Kazakhstan brought no new tidings to justify its title, but did make rapid progress towards furthering ties between its senior broker, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the new US President, Donald Trump.
On Dec. 16, DEBKA Weekly 736 revealed that one of Trump’s pre-conditions for teaming up with Russia is Putin’s consent to clear Syria of the Iranian military presence and remove its Shiite proxies from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Hizballah.
That is precisely what Moscow aimed for at Astana.
On the last day of the conference, Jan.24, the Russian delegation passed round the draft of a new Syrian constitution, without consulting or even briefing the Syrian and Iranian delegates. The Kremlin made sure a copy reached the Trump administration.
Under a key provision, revealed here by DEBKA Weekly sources, Iranian, Hizballah and other pro-Iranian military forces must withdraw from Syria to pave the way for free elections to the presidency and parliament.
The discomfited Syrians and Iranians struck back in two directions:
1. Bashar Assad ordered his army to restart military action against rebels in the Damascus region, in direct breach of the top item on the conference agenda, which was for the three sponsors, Russia, Iran and Turkey, to enforce the three-week ceasefire. This was tantamount to a threat by Assad to reignite the fighting in all of Syria if the Russians persisted in excluding Iran from their plans for his country.
2. Damascus and Tehran came up with a dodge for delegitimizing the opposition delegation – and thus scuttle the peace conference – by alleging that rebels from southern Syria were planted among the opposition delegations, whom they claimed to identify as hired agents of Israeli and Jordanian intelligence.
Despite their anger, Iran and Syria stopped short on the brink of torpedoing Moscow’s peace initiative, fully aware that they cannot do without Russia. Neither the Syrian army, nor Iran or Hizballah are militarily capable of gaining victories against the rebel movement in Syria, without Russian air support.
This was demonstrated when, after years of battling futilely for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city was finally restored to government hands by a victory gained thanks to Russian intervention.
This lesson applies to the ongoing Syrian and allied siege of rebel-held villages in the Barada River valley, including the village of Ai al-Fijah, which provides Damascus with its drinking water. The Syrian army and allied forces are proving that, without Russian air strikes, they are incapable of breaking through to and capturing those villages and assuring their capital of its water supply.
And so, the Syrians and Iranians are gritting their teeth and continuing to go along with Russia’s peace initiative into the next stage, the UN-endorsed conference in Geneva on Feb. 5.
The Kremlin hopes that Putin’s move against Iran at Astana will be taken in Washington as an offer to meet Trump’s pre-condition for cooperation, and that the US president will reciprocate by sending an official delegation to Geneva for an active role in the Syrian peace process. (For Trump’s response, see the top item in this issue.)

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