At Russian President Vladimir Putin’s villa at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, on Nov. 22, three powers appointed themselves a triumvirate for steering Syria into its post-war future: Putin and his two partners, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, decided they would be the real bosses in Damascus. On Monday, Nov. 20, the Syrian ruler Bashar Assad was summoned to Sochi and warned not to torpedo Russian diplomacy and its trilateral strategy.
In his quest for a quick breakthrough to a political solution of the nearly-seven year old war, Putin faces two immediate hurdles:
- The fate of Syria’s 2.5 million Kurds and their YPG militia. In previous DEBKA Weekly issues, we reported that the Russians had brought Kurdish political and military leaders together with Assad regime officials to negotiate a measure of autonomy for their three cantons in northern Syria: Hassake, Kobane and Afrin.
But the Kurds’ YPG military arm dug their heels in. They had led the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) against ISIS with American backing and arms, and were refusing to jump from the American umbrella onto the Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Turkish bandwagon.
At the Sochi summit, our sources report, Putin and Erdogan agreed to offer the Kurds special status for their provinces under their joint protection, in the hope of luring the YPG away from the American sphere of influence. The Trump administration’s determined absence from the Syrian scene should help.
- The northern province of Idlib is the only part of Syria still dominated by Syrian rebels, mainly the Islamist Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (the former Al-Qaeda-Nusra Front). Putin thinks the best way to disarm these rebels is not by military engagement, but through negotiation and, if that doesn’t work, siege and blockade. The Turkish president, while full of bluster about his army’s prowess, is reluctant to have his troops entangled in battle with the fierce Islamists. But so far, this plan is on ice because HTS refuses to negotiate.
To circumvent that obstacle, Putin has called the Syrian People’s Congress to a meeting in Sochi on Dec. 2 to discuss a new Syrian constitution. Invited are the pro-US SDF and some of its factions, including Assyrians and other ethnic minorities. The Russian leader wants to attract as many opponents of the Assad regime as possible, including groups that hitherto sat on the fence, to debate a political solution for their country and so isolate the Islamists of Idlib.
However, DEBKA Weekly notes, two attempts to convene this forum were postponed indefinitely and even if it takes place, no one can tell how many participants will show up.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, the Russian leader had a long phone conversation with President Donald Trump. He hoped for better luck than he had in Vietnam earlier this month in pinning the US president down and obtaining his help for bringing anti-Assad factions to the table. But Trump still showed no interest in getting involved in the Syrian question.
That day, the Russian leader also put in a call to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, hoping to talk down Israel’s resistance to the Iranian and Hizballah presence in the de-escalation zone near its Golan border. Netanyahu replied that posting 1,000 Russian military police officers in the zone to monitor the ceasefire did not adequately comply with Russian Defense Minister Gem. Sergei Shoigu’s promise to Israel to keep Iranian and Hizballah forces at least 15-20km from its border.
Putin had a similar problem with the Syrian de-escalation zone on Jordan’s border – especially since this week, when the Revolutionary Guards Al-Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani personally commanded the recovery of Abu Kamal from ISIS. Amman perceives Iran’s military proximity as a dire threat to its national security.
The Russian leader knows he will get nowhere by interceding with Tehran to pull Iranian-backed and Hizballah forces out of these zones. Anyway, President Rouhani is not the right address for tackling the Revolutionary Guards. There is no doubt that Putin is dead serious in his determination to press ahead until he is in position to declare the war in Syria is over and it is time to shape its future. But the obstacles currently in his path appear to be insurmountable and may take many months of hard work and bargaining to break through.
An unexpected development smacked him in the face when he called Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in another phone call that same Tuesday. (It will be revealed in a separate item in this issue.)