Putin Plans Astana Parley to Keep Assad in Power, Steal a March on Iran

The Syrian peace conference sponsored by Moscow and Ankara opening in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana next Sunday, Jan. 23, will be attended by the chiefs of at least 100 Syrian opposition groups, some of which exist only on paper but for their external “offices” in Turkey.
(The problem of Iran’s attendance is addressed in a separate article in this issue.)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, Jan. 10: “It is unclear how long the talks will last; preparation is quite intensive; we can say nothing more specific now.”
High-level Russian diplomatic and military officials will not be present at the Astana parley, which is seen as a preliminary event in the peace effort and not yet worth a high-prestige presence.
Anyway, they are fully engaged elsewhere.
Russian forces are behaving in Syria as though they own the place; they are doing as they please politically and militarily, without a by-your-leave from President Bashar Assad, his generals, Iran, or, least of all, Hizballah. Occasionally, they confer with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan – but only up to a point.
Moscow chose Astana, a small town of 600,000 inhabitants which straddles the Ishim River in northern Kazakhstan, as the venue for the tricky peace conference it is sponsoring with Ankara, because it is 3,500km from Damascus, and the unruly, endlessly squabbling Syrian rebel groups are therefore far removed from the public eye. At this remote site, it can be dinned in to the Syrian opposition at large that, having been roundly beaten at Aleppo, no anti-Assad group can hope to stand up to Russian might. Only ISIS and the Nusra Front remain to be subdued.
However, to guard against surprises, the Russians took three precautions.
1. They warned Syrian rebel groups in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, including the two powerful radical militias, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, which maintain strongholds there, that they would be left unharmed so long as they refrained from attacking Russian and government forces.
2. A joint Russian-Turkish statement promised the formation of a committee representing all the parties at the Astana conference for drafting a new Syrian constitution. Since these wildly disparate opposition groups can’t be expected to agree on any fundamental principles for a constitution, Moscow will have a good pretext for dragging the conference on almost indefinitely.
This will leave the Russians free to accomplish their primary goal of stabilizing Assad’s rule. The Turkish president may continue his double game of clamoring publicly for the Syrian dictator’s removal, but on the quiet, he will work with Russia to keep him in power.
3. As a further irritant for Tehran, Moscow and Ankara asked Riyadh to try and persuade Saudi-backed Syrian opposition groups to join the peace conference in Kazakhstan. No answer has so far been forthcoming from Riyadh, or from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, to which a similar request was addressed.
Not surprisingly, the conference has become a bone of contention between the two staunchest allies, Tehran and Damascus.
This week, Assad sent his foreign minister, Walid Al-Moalem and his security chief, Gen. Ali Mamluk, to Tehran for “urgent deliberations.” The Syrian ruler needed to find out where the Iranians stand on the conference and, more particularly, on his future in power.
On Sunday, Jan. 8, Tehran sent one of its heavyweights to Damascus. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran and one of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closest confidants. He was told to get clear answers from Assad on the Astana conference and its purpose.
Iran’s rulers realize they are getting the runaround on this conference, but have not decided who is really behind that maneuver, DEBKA Weekly’s Tehran sources report. Is it Donald Trump?
At the same time, they are suddenly out of touch with the Syrian ruler’s direction. After six years as Assad’s most trusted and powerful ally, the Iranians are getting the uncomfortable sense that the ground in Damascus is falling away from under their feet.

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