Tehran to discuss how to move forward in Syria. Damascus is gearing up for a major military operation as the US threatens it with intervention.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will host his Russian and Turkish counterparts Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. The three leaders are engaged in the so-called Astana process, which aims to de-escalate violence in Syria to facilitate a political transition and a sustainable end to the seven-year-old war in the country. It is the third meeting of its kind and is expected to be dominated by discussion relating to Syria’s Idlib governorate.
Located in western Syria, Idlib is the last major stronghold of anti-government armed groups, many of which are hardcore jihadists. The region is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. The total number of extremist forces in the area is estimated at between 10,000 and 60,000, among a population of some 3.5 million people.
The meeting in Iran takes place amid disagreement as to whether the jihadists – who used the governorate to launch regular attacks on other parts of Syria – can be defeated there without a major military operation. The Syrian government seems determined to carry out such a campaign, involving air support from Russia and ground support from Iranian paramilitaries and military advisers.
Turkey, which borders Idlib, objects to this course of action, claiming it would cause a major exodus of civilian population into Turkey, which could be used by jihadists to infiltrate the country.
If such an offensive was successful in Idlib, it would result in the defeat of the last major jihadist force in Syria. However, it would not bring an end to divisions in the country. Large parts in the north-east are controlled by US-backed Kurdish militias, and an American military base is still present on the Syria-Jordan border. Neither would it resolve Israel’s conflict with Iranian forces on Syrian territory. But it would eliminate a force, for which an end to violence and negotiations with Damascus is not an option. Proponents of the mooted operation believe that this outcome would give an impetus to UN-backed peace talks in Geneva.
“I believe that this meeting in Tehran will prepare the international and regional atmosphere for the upcoming military operation in Syria. After the Syrian Army takes all of Idlib, we will start a countdown towards the end of the Syrian crisis,” said Jamal Wakeem, professor of history and international relations at Lebanese University in Beirut.
A deal for Erdogan
Turkey’s concerns over a military confrontation at its border is understandable, but Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s counter-proposal to somehow separate terrorists and civilians through intelligence work does not seem very practical. The jihadists had several years to prepare for a possible attack and have a record of using civilian populations as de facto human shields. Every successful siege in Syria, including the US and Kurdish attack of Raqqa, resulted in heavy losses of civilian lives and damage to civilian infrastructure, while US promises to separate jihadists from so-called moderate rebels proved futile.
Russia and Iran will likely try to persuade Turkey in Tehran that an offensive in Idlib is necessary, while trying to assuage Ankara’s concerns, according to Huseyin Bagci, professor of international relations at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
“The Turkish government is trying to get security for those radical groups which Turkey supported in the past. So a new deal… will be on how those people would be evacuated from Idlib,” he said.
From chemical blackmail to outright threats
As the preparations for an offensive are underway, there has been vocal protest coming from Washington. The US seems convinced that Syrian troops will be unable to refrain from using chemical weapons in Idlib. It has threatened a military retaliation similar to the one in April during a Syrian attack in Douma. US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley went so far as to attribute an attack to Damascus before it even happened.
“It happened in the past when the Syrian government was accused of using chemical weapons at a time when the Syrian government appeared to be winning and had no reason to use chemical weapons,” noted journalist and author Adel Darwish.
The Russian military previously warned that a false-flag chemical-weapons attack was being prepared by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham with the help of the British intelligence. US Defense Secretary James Mattis said the US has ‘zero intelligence’ on the possession of chemical weapons by the “opposition” in Syria, or evidence of their use by anyone but Damascus. He seems to be contradicting previous statements by US officials, which explicitly accused Hayat Tahrir al-Sham of using chemical weapons.