Iran has become involved, through military means and services provided, in northeastern Syria where American, Russian and Turkish forces are deployed.
The three militaries have become deployed there through a series of agreements that military officials are seeking to implement on the ground in a way that averts a clash between the rivals.
On Friday, Tehran emerged in the picture where an Iranian firm has been tasked with tackling a water crisis in predominantly Kurdish al-Hasakeh where Kurds have accused Ankara of manipulating water supplies.
In the Deir Ezzor countryside, Iran has kicked off a training for its allied factions on the use of drones. The move took place days after US officials accused Iran of attacking the American al-Tanf military base.
Iran’s involvement complicates an already complex picture. Russia on Thursday deployed a fighter jet at Qamishli airport, while Turkey has for weeks been threatening to launch a new offensive against Kurdish factions near its border.
Washington, Moscow and Ankara have struck numerous agreements that manage the deployment of their respective forces in northern Syria. American, Russia and Turkish officials have repeatedly stressed the need for full compliance to these agreements that have effectively divided Syria into three zones of influence, overseen by three armies and in partnership or alliance with various Syrian parties and rivals.
What sort of agreements have been struck? Do the three concerned parties have an explanation for them? Is there a difference between the military’s “interpretation” of these agreements and how diplomats have phrased them?
From Astana to Idlib
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s agreements over the Idlib province go back to the “de-escalation” deal that was struck in Astana on May 4, 2017. That day, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed on a document that among many other points, calls for their “solid commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syrian territories” in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254.
On September 17, 2018, Russia, Iran and Turkey reached an agreement on Idlib during a meeting in Sochi. It called for setting up an arms-free zone that is 15-20 kilometers deep. They agreed to deploy military observers and set up checkpoints, paving the way for thousands of Turkish soldiers, Iranian groups and Russian observers to enter the region.
Observation points without observation
Indeed, observation points were set up and the Hama-Aleppo highway was reopened, but several articles of the agreement were not implemented. In early 2020, Syrian forces, backed by Russia, kicked off a military operation in Idlib. They seized vast territories, forcing the displacement of tens of thousands of people.
Turkey soon entered the picture, but a military clash was averted. On March 5, 2020, Putin and Erdogan held a long meeting in Moscow where they reached a new agreement on Idlib that acts as a follow up to the one struck in Sochi.
They agreed to halt combat operations and set up a secure corridor north and south of the Aleppo-Latakia highway. They agreed to deploy joint Russian and Turkish patrols along the highway on March 15.
The patrols were deployed, but the highway was not reopened. Damascus also did not withdraw to the agreed border of the de-escalation zone.
The frontlines there stood in place for 18 months until September when Moscow and Damascus began to escalate their operations in Idlib. On September 26, Russian jets struck a Turkey-backed factions in northern Aleppo. They also struck areas in the Idlib countryside that had not been targeted since the signing of the March 2020 agreement.
The escalation continued until Putin and Erdogan met in Sochi on September 29. They did not hold a press conference after their talks and did not issue a joint statement to summarize their discussions.
Available information saidPutin and Erdogan signed a follow up deal to the military agreement, giving Turkey until the end of the year to fulfill its pledges to provide a secure zone alongside the Aleppo-Latakia highway and fight extremists. For its part, Russia pledged to cease its comprehensive military operations and prevent the displacement of more civilians and refugees towards the Turkish border.
Daraa to Qamishli
In parallel to the agreements between Russia, Turkey and Iran, Moscow was striking deals with the Americans. The first covered southwestern Syria and the other covered its northeast.
In the northwest, the US agreed to abandon opposition factions in Daraa and allow the return of government forces in July 2018. This agreement was continued in September when remaining opposition members laid down their light weapons, regime forces were allowed to fully return to the area and the border with Jordan was reopened. In the northeast, the American and Russian militaries reached a non-collision agreement.
In October 2019, then US President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from the border with Turkey. This allowed Turkish forces to carry out an incursion in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad east of the Euphrates and reshuffle military cards there.
On October 22, Putin and Erdogan reached another agreement in Sochi, this time over northeastern Syria. They agreed to commit to the regional and political unity of Syria and protect Turkey’s national security. They expressed their determination to combat all forms of terrorism and separatist projects in Syria – a reference to the Kurds, who are allied to Washington.
On the military level, the agreement called for maintaining the situation as it is in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. It voiced its backing to the Adana agreement that allows Turkey to enter five kilometers into northern Syria to pursue terrorists and members of the Kurdistan Workers Party.
Operation rooms were set up to coordinate patrols and operations in northeastern Syria – an area that is already crowded by armies on land and in the sky. American, Russian and Turkish bases have been set up on the ground and American and Russian jets and Turkish drones roam the skies.
American, Russian and Turkish officials have repeatedly called on all sides to commit to signed agreements. There is no doubt, however, that each party is more focused on certain agreements over others. Moscow, for example, is more focused on the Idlib agreement, while Ankara has its eyes set on the situation east of the Euphrates. Washington, meanwhile, wants Ankara to hold back from attacking its Kurdish allies. Turkey, for its part, repeatedly reminds the US of the need to keep the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) away from its borders.
Failure to implement this last point has been pushing Turkey towards launching another operation against the Kurds. It is paramount for Ankara to prevent the establishment of a “Kurdish entity” south of its borders and it will view such a development as a national security threat.
Turkey has over the past three years carried out various operations in northern Syria aimed at fragmenting the “Kurdish entity” in the region.
Before receiving Erdogan in September, Putin escalated Russian attacks on Idlib and maintained coordination in the region east of the Euphrates. Before meeting US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the climate summit in Glasgow in two days, Erdogan mobilized forces east of the Euphrates and in northern Aleppo. Putin also deployed fighter jets in Qamishli, the “capital” of the Kurds, and where pressure has been mounting on the American troops there ever since the US pullout from Afghanistan.
Amid all this, Iran, which is already present in the Alboukamal and al-Mayadeen regions west of the Euphrates, has started to turn to its “soft power” to counter these forces. It kicked off these efforts by addressing the water crisis in al-Hasakeh.
All of these developments demonstrate that the situation in Idlib, Aleppo and east of the Euphrates are connected even as the military has different interpretations of agreements signed by diplomats at the bidding of political leaders.