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Assad looks on as hectic diplomacy shapes Syria’s future

As the fighting has reduced across Syria, domestic and external players are jostling to maximize their advantages at the expense of their rivals. This has made the future of Syria the subject of extraordinary diplomatic activity, with senior leaders and officials rushing from meeting to meeting and, in between, catching up with each other on the phone.

The most active in this regard last month were the Russian and Turkish presidents and their officials. Vladimir Putin’s principal interest is to take advantage of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s disenchantment with the US and, by pandering to his interests, ensure that Turkey remains firmly tied to Russia.

The two leaders met in Moscow in early April. There, Russia focused on strengthening bilateral ties in the political, economic and military spheres, consolidating relations that go beyond Syria. They noted the extraordinary achievements in their ties with regard to trade, energy projects and military cooperation, with both sides affirming the Turkish commitment to purchasing the S-400 missile system from Russia. Moscow also offered its own combat aircraft if the US decides to exclude Turkey from the F-35 development project.

With regard to Syria, two issues that are crucially important for Turkey are those on which Russia does not share the same view: Idlib and the Kurds in the northeast of the country.

Russia is exasperated with Turkey’s inability to make any headway in Greater Idlib — which includes the Idlib governorate and parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia — where Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the former Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra, holds sway and refuses to be co-opted into the Turkey-sponsored Syrian National Army. Though President Bashar Assad has been seeking the green light for a military assault, Russia, fearing a bloodbath and thousands of refugees flooding Turkey, has agreed to give Erdogan more time to handle the extremists. But, to placate Assad, Russia has also stepped up bombings on HTS targets.

On the question of the Kurds on the other side of the Euphrates, Erdogan is straining to launch military action but he is being held back by Russia and the US. American troops are still in place and remain the guardians of the Syrian Kurds. Russia is promoting a Kurdish-Assad reconciliation, with the latter particularly anxious to regain his country’s oilfields in the region.

The other active player in Syria is Iran. Tehran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif visited both Damascus and Ankara in mid-April. His mission was to ensure that Assad and Erdogan remain on the same page in regard to Idlib and the Kurds. Anxious to maintain good Iran-Turkey ties in the face of increasing US hostility, Zarif counselled restraint in Damascus. He expressed concerns about the continued presence of radical elements in Idlib and advocated patrolling of the Syria-Turkey border by Syrian government troops.

Separately, Iraqi national security adviser Falih Al-Fayadh and Russia’s Syrian envoy Alexander Lavrentiev also visited Damascus. This was possibly to prepare the ground for greater interaction between Syria and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, thus broadening Syria’s political and economic options.

The Americans are exasperated by Erdogan’s brinkmanship but are not ready to sever ties just yet. To encourage Turkey to give up the S-400 deal, they propose the setting up of a “safe zone” along the Kurdish-Turkey border. While ostensibly protecting the Kurds, the safe zone will allow the US to maintain a military presence to restrict Iranian influence in the region.

The safe zone was discussed by Jim Jeffrey, US special envoy for Syria, in Turkey at the end of April. Turkey welcomed the safe zone, but only if it was 32 kilometers inside Kurdish territory and patrolled by Turkish forces. The Kurds accept, at best, a 5-kilometer safe zone under Arab and Kurdish control and insist that Turkey return Afrin to them. They are concerned that the US’ primary interest in confronting Iran might lead it to abandon them and keep Turkey on its side. Turkey, meanwhile, has stepped up the military training of its Syrian National Army for an imminent assault on the Kurds.

These different interests were reflected at the 12th round of peace talks on Syria that took place at Nur-Sultan, the new name of the Kazakh capital Astana. It was attended by officials of the sponsors — Russia, Iran and Turkey — and representatives of the Syrian government and opposition.

Interestingly, all Syrians, government and opposition alike, were united in criticizing the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights and also US plans to remain in Syria as “attempts to create new realities on the ground.” They also insisted on upholding “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the security of neighboring countries.” Beyond this, decisions on other issues, including the setting up of the constitution committee to kickstart the political process, have been deferred to the next Geneva conference.

Damascus is in turn bemused and concerned by the diplomatic shenanigans of regional and external players seeking to determine its future. Its immediate concern is to see how effective Russia is in managing Turkey at Idlib and in the northeast. If ongoing diplomatic efforts are not productive, renewed hostilities will be the unfortunate outcome.