Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to pull the Syrian issue out of its stalemate with a new strategy based on a change of partners. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was surprised to discover this when he arrived in Moscow on Feb. 27. They soon agreed on the first step: the creation of a joint team to advance the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria. On March 3, Netanyahu informed the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that he and Putin had “agreed on a common goal: the withdrawal of foreign forces which had arrived in Syria after the outbreak of the civil war.” They would advance this goal “together with other elements,” Netanyahu did not elaborate. Neither did Putin.
The Russian president took a new tack when he saw diplomacy on Syria’s next steps going around in circles and getting nowhere.
1. President Donald Trump’s special adviser Jared Kushner’s trip to Ankara had not produced a deal for Turkish forces to enter northern Syria and establish a security buffer zone along their common border. President Tayyip Erdogan had put his foot down against the participation of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in securing the zone.
2. Moscow too found Ankara holding out on agreed steps in northern Syria, especially in the Idlib province, the last major region still holding out against Syrian military control. Russia is also against Ankara imposing a Turkish military presence or activating its allied militias in the region.
3. Erdogan, for his part, is intransigently opposed to a Russian-backed offensive for bringing Idlib under control, whether by the Syrian army or pro-Iranian forces. Ankara holds a strong lever in Idlib. The wayward province is dominated by the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) which colludes secretly with the Turkish military and intelligence. While Turkish officials were talking to Kushner in Ankara, this militia was told to launch dozens of mortar shells on the al-Zahra district of northwestern Aleppo – and release the video of the attack to show the world who was in charge. This was another deliberate violation of the Russian-Turkish demilitarized accord for Idlib and a message to Moscow as well as Washington that Ankara had the power to raise mayhem for both powers in northern Syria whenever it chose.
Like Turkey, Iran is playing a lone hand in Syria, apart from US, Russian and Turkish goals. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was abruptly flown to Tehran on Feb. 25 – apparently dragged there by Al Qods thugs – and notified that he and Iran would operate together in the future, independently of the US and Moscow as well as Turkey.
4. The Idlib impasse ties Assad’s hands for any political or diplomatic progress towards carving out a future for Syria. Therefore, the two international peace tracks, the Syrian Peace conference, backed by the UN and America, and the Astana peace process, backed by Russia are both in suspense. At one point last summer, Presidents Trump and Putin agreed to merge the two tracks. That concurrence was set aside in December by Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria.
For all these reasons, President Putin is on the way to ditching Iran and Turkey, his former partners in Syria and bringing the US and Israel into the Syrian loop.
He caught Netanyahu by surprise when, for the first time in their half a dozen previous meetings, he was willing to discuss the Syrian situation as a whole and, in particular, Israel’s views on a political solution for the predicament facing an Arab nation. Such talks had taken place for years between Washington and Jerusalem, but usually behind closed doors and between low-ranking officials.
The Israeli prime minister was meanwhile glad to attain the main object of his journey to Moscow when Putin agreed to making a clear distinction between Israeli attacks on Iranian or pro-Iranian targets in Syria and strikes on Syrian military sites – except when intelligence sources proved the latter were hosting an Iranian or pro-Iranian military presence.
Putin’s consent to that point brought forth a blast of fury from Tehran. Assad was bombarded with warnings from every high official he met there on Feb. 25, up to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, against accepting Putin’s deal with Israel. He was directed to lodge strong protests with Moscow for its assent to Iran and its allies being singled out for Israeli attacks in Syria. According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, the Syrian ruler was not cowed by Tehran’s ire and refrained from posting protests with the Russians.
Then, on Monday, March 4, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the joint US Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, his counterpart as Russian Chief of Staff, met in Vienna to discuss the Syrian situation. Presidents Trump and Putin had sent their top military chiefs to discuss the resumption of cooperation between their armies in Syria on the basis of the understanding the Russian president had reached with the Israeli prime minister regarding the removal of foreign forces from Syria. President Trump had evidently decided that Moscow’s new path suited his own goals and he would therefore go along with it.