Written by Evegny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
This article was released by VPK on June 26, 2018
Work on the Syrian Constitution Should be Preceded by an agreement of Moscow and Tehran with Ankara and Washington
Government forces, having freed the Damascus suburbs from militants, begin cleaning the southern provinces of Syria, which is a zone of US interest. The latter continue to support the Islamists on the border with Jordan, trying to stop pro-Iranian Shi’ites on the border with Iraq, using the UN structures in Geneva to their advantage.
The US is concerned about reports of increased activity of the Syrian Armed Forces within the de-escalation zone in the south-west, the agreement on the establishment of which was reached between the US, Russia and Jordan in Hamburg on July 7, 2017. It came into force on July 9, 2017 in accordance with the truce in the provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and as-Suwayda. Above all, the US has no tools of influence on this situation. They are not in any condition to influence it by force; there are no American forces or allied formations in the area.
To act through the al-Tanf base with forces of trained militants, moving them to the south is futile. From a military point of view, such a raid and exit from the security zone of 55 kilometres from the aforementioned base is fraught with air strikes. Even more so, to go into such a campaign large formations are needed. From a political point of view, the lunge there of pro-American forces will make them allies of the jihadists, who form the backbone of the resistance in the southern de-escalation zone. The Americans cannot deliver air strikes on the advancing government forces on a permanent basis, and they cannot disrupt the offensive with their strikes. Plus it is fraught with direct clashes with Russian air defence forces.
The US can try to influence the situation through the Jordanian and Israeli facilities, which have influence among the rebels in southern Syria. But Tel Aviv has signed an agreement with Moscow on “non-interference”, and Amman has serious problems within the country due to unpopular economic reforms, so it does not want to actively intervene in the situation. So Washington has one lever – Ankara’s stimulation to block the implementation of the scheme “withdrawal of militants in exchange for security” in the south of Syria, which was previously used in East Ghouta and Aleppo.
Americans curtsey to the Turks in connection with the agreements on Manbij and the transfer of two F-35 fighters to them, contrary to the demands of Congress, have, among other things, this goal. They promise the Turks future incorporation as the main US ally in Syria in exchange for Ankara blocking any agreements between the part of the opposition in the south they controlled with Damascus, which will make the refusal of any agreements with Assad and other rebel groups automatic. But Ankara does not believe Washington fully; the manoeuvres on their rapprochement are just going on. The same applies to the Manbij theme and the disarmament of the Kurds.
Ankara demands their mandatory disarmament. They, no matter how they are tied to the support of the US, will not go for it, but the Americans do not have enough forces to the coercive disarmament of the Kurdish troops. In addition, for Washington, this will mean the designation of a break with the Kurds as potential allies at a time when the alliance with the Turks is not fully formed. The United States control of the Sunnis beyond the Euphrates is a big question as well.
Thus, relations between the US and Turkey, according to the analytical agency Startfor, will deteriorate. Erdogan used the anti-American attitude of the Turks to gain electoral advantages from the Nationalists. Sharp anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric has become commonplace in Turkey during the election period, complicating the already tense relations between Ankara, the US and the EU. Nevertheless, we can assume that in case of a hard mindset in Washington on Ankara’s conversion into a key partner in Syria, Erdogan will swing the US side after the elections.
There is an economic reason for this. The Turkish economy is experiencing difficulties and the unstable national currency makes Turkey vulnerable to pressure. Especially since the US remains its main supplier of weapons, because Ankara does not want to depend on Russia nor on China in the field of military-technical cooperation.
The Kurds will be Betrayed Again
In Abu Kamal and its environs, there are periodic battles between government forces and supporters of ISIS (banned in Russia) since June 8, which were squeezed out of Iraq by Shi’ite groups of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, trying to connect with the Syrian troops in the area of this strategic town and close a single arc of control. On June 18, the formation of the coalition “Forces of Democratic Syria” (SDS), the backbone of which are the Kurds, knocked out the terrorists from the Al-Dashisha area in the south-east in the province of al-Hasakah. The SDS reported in a communiqué that Al-Dashisha was a major outpost of ISIS terrorists.
The Iraqi Air forces played the main role in the preparation of the progress of the Kurds. They did this in coordination with the US forces, which served as goal spotters. The Americans are trying, on the one hand, to ensure the liberation of al-Hasakah by Kurdish forces up to the border with Iraq and, at the same time to restrain the movement of pro-Iranian groups in the area of Abu Kamal. Last Saturday, the town of Tel Shair was liberated from ISIS. In the neighbouring province of Deir ez-Zor, terrorists are holding three districts, Hajin, Ash Sha’fah and As Susah. In total, less than three percent of Syrian territory remains under their control in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah after the defeat of the main ISIS forces in the autumn of 2017.
The question of who will take control of the maximum area beyond the Euphrates, and especially in Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah. Iraqi government troops al-Hashd al-Shaabi accused the United States of shelling its positions on the border with Syria and the death of 22 soldiers. The Americans denied this, although in fact the incident took place. At the same time, the US is interested in further coordination efforts with Baghdad, and the strike was in the nature of a warning to the Shi’ites about the need to contain offensive fervour, which is unlikely to affect them. The Americans clearly do not have enough real forces “on the ground” to complete this operation. And if Baghdad reduces air support as a result of the current incident, the situation for the SDS could worsen even more. We will note that the Kurds from the “Democratic Union” (DS) party continue to fight on the side of the coalition, despite all the advances of the US with Turkey on Manbij. This means that the leadership of the DS either received guarantees of immunity from Washington, or is confident that beyond Manbij on the other side of the Euphrates, the Americans will not let the Turks in. And all the talk from the Kurds about their readiness for a dialogue with Damascus, which rang after the reports about the agreement between the US and Turkey on Manbij, ceased.
So far, apparently, there is no clarity in Ankara. Hence the statement of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey on the inviolability of the deal with Moscow on the S-400. Such rhetoric always arises in response to the actions of the US Congress to block the supply of weapons to Turkey. The position of the Americans is currently risky – they will have to choose, and there is every reason to believe that the choice will not be in favour of the Kurds, they will once again be betrayed in favour of global American interests in Syria.
The Geneva Meeting of the Guarantors
High-ranking representatives of the guarantor countries of the truce in Syria (Russia, Iran, Turkey) held consultations on the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva at the invitation of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura. From Russia, Aleksandr Lavrentiev, the President’s Special Envoy of the Syrian Settlement, and the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Veshinin attended the round, from Iran and Turkey Deputy Foreign Ministers Hossein Jaberi Ansari and Sedat Onal respectively.
The successful meetings, including with the Syrian opposition, were devoted to drawing up a list of candidates for the Committee. They agreed to meet in Geneva in three weeks to continue discussions. The results of the meeting are still intermediate, the parties used it to fix the positions at the current stage. As for the Constitutional Committee, the legitimacy of the future basic law from the point of view of the international community will depend on the representation of various segments of the Syrian society in it.
The very agreement on the formation of the Committee was reached by the results of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress held in Sochi on January 30. This structure, together with Staffan de Mistura, will prepare proposals for the elaboration of the country’s constitution. There should be 150 people as candidates. One hundred of them should represent the government and internal (moderate) opposition and fifty should be candidates from the external opposition.
Official Damascus gave the special envoy its list. Representatives of a number of opposition groups participating in the Congress in Sochi sent their own version of the document to the guarantor countries on June 15 (the “Moscow” platform, the “Tomorrow of Syria” movement). The Syrian negotiating Committee has not done so. That is, there is no desire for internal and external opposition, if we are to understand this term as not “Moscow” or pro-Iranian groups, but real opponents of Damascus, to participate in the work of this body and create it. This demonstrated the position of the main sponsors of the opposition in the person of the KSA, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan, not to mention the US and its western allies.
While the opposition does not want to engage in a dialogue with Damascus, exposing a lot of impossible conditions like the departure of Bashar al-Assad and the withdrawal of Iranian forces. In this regard, there are two options for moving forward. The first, the definitive completion of elimination of the strongholds of the irreconcilable resistance in central and southern Syria at least to the Euphrates. As long as there are pockets of resistance on this territory, and ISIS troops operate from Palmyra to the Euphrates, it is pointless to talk about negotiations with the opposition. The second, the independent formation of a committee of representatives of the agreement-capable part of the opposition, reconciled tribes and the Kurds agreeable to Damascus. However, this option is bad due to the limited representation of all segments of the Syrian society and will quickly exhaust itself.
Obviously, the topic of the constitution is far ahead in time. Moscow is pedaling this process to demonstrate the final phase of its mission in Syria and set a precedent for resolving local conflicts as opposed to the American model in Iraq or the French model in Libya. However, the parties to the conflict and most of their sponsors do not want to deal with the constitution.
The constitution and the global Geneva negotiations format are not yet ready. Nine meetings were held in Astana, the tenth with be held in late July, early August in Sochi, and the 11th and 12th, perhaps, again in Kazakhstan. At the same time, it is too early to talk about holding a new Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue, and this in itself indicates contradictions. In Geneva, the main point of divergence of positions between Moscow and Tehran, on the one hand and Ankara, on the other became obvious. Negotiations on Syria in Astana will not make sense in the event of the Syrian Army offensive in the province of Idlib, which is one of the de-escalation zones, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told NTV, because in this development of events “there will be no sense in Turkey’s cooperation with Iran and Russia”.
Moscow’s position is obvious – it requires Ankara to separate the opposition in Idlib with the elimination of Jabhat al-Nusra supporters. Ankara plans to put these groups under the control both through reconciliation and through the absorption of their groups by pro-Turkish opposition groups. In this case, a non-agreement-capable opposition group remains in Idlib, making any attempts of creating a constitution impossible. Even more so, in Ankara’s plans for Syria there is no desire to conduct a dialogue with Damascus about the future political architecture of this country.
Moscow calls on groups of moderates to go not just to reconciliation with Damascus in the south of Syria, but also to take an active part in the destruction of the remaining ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra troops there. Turkey has its own point of view on this issue. Only if Moscow can guarantee that the SAS troops will remain legally in the south of Syria, and will not take any military action in Idlib, agreeing that this province is a zone of strategic interest and influence solely to Ankara, the latter are willing to somehow participate in operations against the “irreconcilables”. There is little doubt that after Erdogan’s victory in the presidential elections, he will not soften this position.
White Helmets Again in the Arsenal
The US State Department on May 4 announced the termination of the allocation of funds to the White Helmets, but on June 14 announced the continuation of the programme of financing this organisation. It is planned to allocate 6.6 million dollars to this end. The US has supported the White Helmets since 2013. During this time, the American authorities have provided them with more than 33 million dollars. The White Helmets have repeatedly made statements that the Syrian government forces’ aircraft strike civilians areas. The parties will ultimately remain with their own: Moscow will deny any data that are obtained with the use of White Helmets, and the West will take the opposite position. It is important that the US security forces persuaded the administration and personally President Donald Trump to leave the funding of this NGO in their charge. Earlier, the Americans tried to shift the financing of this structure to the British and the KSA intelligence services, this was as ordered by Trump himself. But something has changed, most likely the security forces realised that Riyadh will not be able to control the process in the right direction for the US. In addition, this fact made the Helmets’ activities more vulnerable from the point of view of their connection with Jabhat al-Nusra.
In this situation the CIA was able to convince Trump that the White Helmets should be kept under their control. Fortunately, a military operation is expected to eliminate the de-escalation zone in the south of the country, and among the few options for influencing the situation in the right direction for the US remains another staging of “the use of chemical weapons by Damascus.” The conditions for this were created last year, when in southern Syria Jordanian experts collect “biological materials”. Thus, provocations with accusations of Damascus of using chemical weapons and “respect for human rights” remaining in Washington’s arsenal on the Syrian track and will be used in the near future.
This article is based on material from the Middle East Institute expert Yu. Schelgovin.