The US-Russian agreement on Syria – how could it shape the ongoing conflict?
Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Vox Veritatis exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Desi Tzoneva
The signing of the US-Russian agreement on the settlement of the situation in Syria has ended the period during which Washington could not come to terms with the failure of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the defeat of its allies there: Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The key role in changing the geopolitical situation in the region was played by the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). Without its destruction of the terrorists in Syria and attacks on their oil production and transport infrastructure, the activation of the anti-terrorist coalition, led by the United States, is extremely dubious. Jealousy of the US over Russia’s success turned out to be a more effective stimulus for war on terrorism than the regional competition with Iran.
Nevertheless, the position on the front is ambiguous. Turkey’s actions on the Syrian border have set for the US a nearly impossible objective of maintaining a balance between Ankara and the Kurds. The Islamist groups in Aleppo and in the region of the Jordanian border demonstrate independence, which certainly does not please the Saudi curators. Additionally, there is discord in pro-Qatar IS (organisation banned in Russia) between jihadist-foreigners, Iraqi Baathists and the Syrian clans. With all the surprises that may be brought on by the civil war, a turning point in the minds of Washington (if not of the Arabian monarchies) occurred – and the fact that the talks between Lavrov and Kerry have led to a concrete result, are testament of this. Let’s consider the current situation in Syria and some of its prospects of the development on the basis of materials of U.B. Scheglovin (prepared for the Middle East Institute – MEI).
Damascus – business climate
The development of the operational situation in Syria is characterised by the surveillance of MEI experts, who assessed the situation in Deir ez-Zor which is controlled by IS supporters. The refinery continues to operate. It was not damaged as a result of the air raids, but due to the reduction in supply of raw materials, production has dropped to only one-third. The number of trucks that carry the fuel (the main part of it goes to Turkey) has decreased – they are all extremely worn out – an entire park of oil tankers suffered from the actions of the RF’s VKS. IS buys half of the produced fuel at a lower price and sells it to the Turks. IS and factory owners are looking for a source for technological renovation of the manufacture, the operation of which will end in a year or two. The degree of oil refining at the plant is 20% to 25% – extremely low values.
The relationship between IS members and the general population has significantly softened, and the extrajudicial killings and executions have, in fact, stopped. Roadblocks are manned by local residents without the presence of Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters. This is also associated with the outflow of IS foreign insurgents from the Syrian territory due to the decrease in their financing (from $800 per month to between $250 and $300, depending on the rank). The Qatari preachers and imams have also disappeared from the region controlled by the IS – a year ago there were many, one Qatari in every mosque.
In the areas controlled by the IS, Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo, Saudi emissaries and traders that kept their mobile shops have vanished. On the local market, the traders refuse to accept Saudi Riyals as payment, which were previously on a par with dollars. This is caused by a large increase in fake currency that was made in Turkey and Idlib. It is possible that the Saudis have been paying the ‘Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’ militants (formerly ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’, an organisation banned in Russia) with fake currency.
The lack of funding is attested to by a sharp decline (two-thirds) in the number of terrorist attacks organised by IS with the help of jihadist bombings. The growth of outrage among Iraqi Baathist officers from the middle and upper command links of the IS units is noted (not yet openly shown). This is typical of the Syrian front, and is particularly common among the officers who studied in the USSR. The reason for this is the decrease in the financing and the growing influence of radical foreigners in the leadership of IS. However, an outrage can only happen in the presence of a leader who is interested in the change of the organisation’s leadership and has significant financial resources. Baathist officers estimate the presence of IS in Syria with the current event dynamics to last one or two years.
The logistical support from Saudi Arabia to the squads of ‘Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’ near Aleppo has ceased. They stopped receiving US TOW anti-tank missile systems and cartridges for small arms. This is related to both the Turkish position to freeze logistics for Aleppo, and the fluctuations in the ranks of the Saudi leadership that is promoting the need for new tactics. Financial support of Syrian militants from Bahrain has stopped. Pro-Saudi groups suffered heavy losses in the recent battle in Aleppo. Experts estimate that up to half of their composition (between 7,000 and 8,000 fighters) was lost; they were either killed, wounded, captured or deserted. ‘Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’ lost control over a large group of Jordanians. Most foreigners in its ranks are Tunisians (3,000 fighters). But that was before the main battle for Aleppo, which formed the backbone of the coming Tunisians.
Some pro-Turkish groups (including ‘Ahrar al-Sham’) near Aleppo entered safe zones between Jaarablus and Azaz. Two refugee camps are being built there. According to the builders, the construction is financed by Turkey. It is planned to house up to 100,000 refugees, which will enable the creation of rear bases for the loyal pro-Turkish opposition groups with the help of EU funds and will provide the Turks with the necessary balance between the Arab Sunni population in the region.
At the same time, Ankara has intensified the informal contacts with Damascus, preparing the basis for reconciliation. The appearance of the Turkish national oil company, two medium-sized banks, as well as a major European bank, EFG, owned by a Turkish family, have been marked in Damascus. The latter are negotiating the opening of representative offices in the Syrian capital. Turkish and Syrian builders have begun the construction of a Turkish supermarket on the way to the capital’s airport.
The Israelis, who drew conclusions about the political survivability of the Assad regime, are also actively involved (the Syrians, for obvious reasons, do not tend to demonstrate this openly). It is known that two Israeli companies were negotiating obtaining licenses from Damascus for geological exploration of the Latakia sea shelf closer to the waters of Lebanon. One license has been issued. The second is likely to be obtained in October. The representative of the Israeli bank, Hapoalim, is currently in Damascus, and is arranging the opening of a representative office. The employment of Israeli companies in the Arab world has been successfully carried out for many years, contrary to the traditional anti-Israeli rhetoric of the local media. It will most likely be no less successful in Syria than in the Gulf states and the Maghreb.
Note that the French presence in Syria has intensified. The restoration of the Citroen factory has begun. There are currently many representatives from the French business community. A senior diplomat from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who should become the French Consul General in Damascus at the end of this year or early next year, has visited the city incognito. At the same time, flights to Syria are scheduled by Air France airlines. Additionally, Damascus has allowed the retransmission of the country’s four main French television channels.
States face a choice
The contents of the agreement signed by the heads of the US and Russian diplomatic offices, as well as details of the negotiations, were not disclosed. According to The Washington Post, Obama handed over Washington’s proposals on Syria to Putin at the G20 Summit in China. Among them was a ceasefire throughout Syria, including the Aleppo region and the organisation of stable and safe delivery of humanitarian help – the US’s commitment to “try” to separate the terrorists from the “moderate opposition.” Washington considered it necessary to prohibit strikes by Syrian aircraft on militants after the armistice. After that, the Russian Federation and the United States could launch a joint air operation against the terrorists, making sure in advance that the selected targets are, in fact, insurgents ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’ or IS, but not the “moderate opposition.” As far as can be judged, all these key factors were entered into the agreement for the Americans.
If we analyse the position of Washington, it is based on an attempt to withdraw the Syrian air force, reducing the role of Assad. The objective of the West is the “separation” of Moscow from Assad in an exchange for a mythical coordination of joint efforts in the fight against the Islamists. Hence the increased rhetoric of Western politicians (mainly British and German) before the meeting of the Russian and American presidents about the “impossibility of further development of Syria with Assad,” stimulated by the American-UN investigation regarding the use of chemical weapons by the government.
We express doubt that the United States will fulfill its promise to divide the opposition and moderate Islamists. They have already taken “two weeks” on it, but have done nothing promised so far. Note also that the negotiations with the Americans or the Europeans provide only legally-fixed obligations. And these have been held to by the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Clearly, the main objective of the US proposals is the failure of a strategic offensive and consolidation of the success of government forces in Aleppo, the introduction of “no-fly zones” in Syria, which would dramatically reduce the overall superiority of the Syrian and Russian aviation forces and their crucial role not only in containing the enemy, but also in the development of an offensive. The US offered Russia the option to transfer operations against Islamists into a consultation mode with the right to veto strikes against targets on the pretext that they belong to the “moderate opposition.” As such, Russia could not accept this agreement without compromising its strategic interests therefore, it was not accepted. This is confirmed by the five-hour pause during the negotiations, throughout which the American participants coordinated Russia’s final position with Washington.
Let us ask ourselves what steps could be undertaken by the US in Syria in the event of a rejection of its initiative? Mainly, nothing. Its position in Syria is uncertain and definitely not such that it can dictate the terms. It got stuck in Raqqa and is leading complex negotiations with Turkey on the degree of its operations in northern Syria. Washington is not satisfied with Ankara’s lack of position on the timing of this operation. The US does not know how to behave regarding the Kurds’ cry for help, and they have nothing to offer. It postpones the solution of the fundamental objective of Washington in Syria – the taking of Raqqa, badly needed in connection with the election campaign in America. In the worst case scenario, the response of the US to the lack of progress in the adoption of the proposals by Russia could be the bombing of Syrian forces’ positions or the beginning of the massive logistical support of opposition groups loyal to them.
The first option may be omitted. The White House will not take such drastic steps right before the board change, because no one will be able to calculate the political and military risks that can arise in this case, including retaliatory moves of the “Syrian air defense.” The second option is highly unlikely as the Americans have a choice: whom to supply? The choice is between the Kurds, which may cause a sharp reaction by Ankara, and the pro-Turkish groups, which will cause the same reaction from the Kurds. It is especially unnerving for the Americans that the leaders of the Party of Democratic Union (PDU) began to actively seek contacts with Russia.
Power and declaration
If we talk about the problem of choosing allies, which is what the Americans in Syria are facing, they are forced to continue to support the forces of democratic Syria (PIF), i.e. the PDU, or remain faithful to the alliance with Ankara. Without the first, Americans are least likely to take Raqqa. Without the second, their military activity would be extremely complicated, including the use of the air force and logistical support of the VTS. The moment of truth has arrived and the Americans will not be able to sit on two chairs, as is evidenced by the statements made by the leadership of Ankara and the PDU.
In October, Kurds will adopt the constitution of their government system in the north of Syria. This was stated to Reuters news agency by the head of the regional assembly serving the Kurdish-controlled areas, Khadija Yusef. According to her, the capital of the Kurdish federation should be Qamishli and Syrian Kurds intend to unite the areas in the north-east and north-west Syria under their control, in spite of the intervention of Turkey aimed at disrupting these plans. On March17th, the establishment of the regional administration in the north of the federal SAR – Federation of Northern Syria – was announced by Kurdish representatives as a result of the Congress of more than 30 political parties in the Syrian Rumeylane.
According to the authors of the initiative, the government will represent the interests of all ethnic groups in their territories. The forum, which was held under the motto “The Democratic Federative Syria is a guarantee of joint living and brotherhood of peoples,” was attended by 200 delegates representing the Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkomans, Circassians and Armenians living in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country. At the meeting with the governor in Ankara, President Erdogan said in response that Turkey would not allow the creation of a terrorist corridor in northern Syria – an area where groups of extremists could gain a foothold and a chance to act.
Additionally, Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, explained the position of Turkey: “Turkey emphasises and insists … that … the operation is carried out by the locals in the region, instead of SNA.” “Turkey will not allow the SNA to expand their territory and gain strength, using the operation against the IS as an excuse.” He said that the Kurdish troops have not moved to the east bank of the Euphrates, as was stipulated by the agreements brokered by the US, and stressed that Ankara will not pursue additional objectives in the operations in the area of Manbij if the Kurds fulfill these requirements.
Presumably, the Kurds are bluffing. We are seeing a déjà vu of what is happening in Iraqi Kurdistan (IR). There, President M. Barzani regularly exploits the theme of a “national referendum” on independence in pursuit of two goals: the work on the electorate and haggling additional concessions with the financial tranches from Baghdad. Immediately upon the conclusion of the deal on the profit share from oil sales from Kirkuk, Erbil agreed to “postpone” the referendum. The same thing is happening in Syria. Only instead of oil being at stake, is the Turkish expansion in the “Kurdish areas” of the country.
Statements about the “independence” and “constitution” in this context have no real content: no one from the biggest international players recognises this constitution and the leadership of the PDU is well aware of it. They want a naturally-arising, in their eyes, compromise: the rejection of the further processing of the declared “independence” in exchange for termination of the Turkish aggression and the resumption of military aid supplies from the Americans. At the same time, the Syrian Kurds are quite satisfied with the fact that they will not storm Raqqa. It is not “their” traditional territory – they are sent by the Americans who do not have any significant force “on the ground” in this area of Syria, except for the Kurds, to storm the Syrian “capital” of IS.
As for Turkey, the president’s proposal to establish a security buffer around the perimeter of the Syrian-Turkish border also has the nature of propaganda and it should be considered in terms of placing psychological pressure on the United States. Erdogan wants to take advantage of their support and force the Kurds to withdraw from the western bank of the Euphrates, as well as offer Washington the only possible scenario: the recognition by the US of the “security zone” between Jarablusom and Azaz and the use of groups loyal to Turkey to storm Raqqa. In this case, the latter is likely to be freed in a short time and with minimal losses, and that does not mean the defeat of the supporters of IS. They will just depart without a fight into a neighbouring city, the same situation that took place in Jarabluse.
As for Erdogan’s threats to establish a “security zone” around the perimeter of the Syrian-Turkish border, it is unlikely, since it requires multiple amplification groups of the Turkish army in northern Syria; an entry of Turkish troops into Kurdish areas of the country with guerrilla war; respective losses; and shows a complete lack of perspective. Ankara will not be able to gather Arab militia units in order to ensure that they take the role of the main guarantor of security in areas foreign to them. The capital can barely manage to create the proper group from loyal Arab forces between Jarablusom and Azaz for this situation. And the Arabs will not be willing to expose themselves to attacks by the Kurds.
At the same time, the Turkish military, which is overwhelmed by the level of repression in the army, without resistance allowed Erdogan to send them to Syria, and it is unlikely that they will enjoy the prospect of standing as garrisons across the Syrian-Turkish border, carrying a permanent loss. From this point follows the option which was articulated by the Turkish defense minister in an interview with his American counterpart. In this situation, the US is likely to take a break in Syria and eventually concentrate its efforts on the capture of Mosul in Iraq.