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Different Agendas and Fronts in Syria

Different Agendas and Fronts in Syria

Saturday, 17 September, 2022 - 06:45

Since day one of the crisis in Syria, Iran has been directly engaged and present on the frontlines. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanese Hezbollah, and other Shia militia from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have been an essential part of the Assad regime’s war effort.

Assad’s other big time ally Russia is engaged in a war in Ukraine and there is a general perception that Russia is trimming its presence in Syria.

It is true that the war in Ukraine is not going as smoothly as the Russians had expected and they had to redeploy some of their troops and equipment which were in Syria. But that does not mean that Russia is reducing in size and capability to the level that would make itself irrelevant.

On the contrary, under present circumstances, I would argue that Russia’s presence and influence in Syria has become even more important as an instrument in relations with adversaries and “friends” alike.

In any event, Iran is trying to take advantage of the situation and making moves to expand its presence and influence in Syria.

In this regard, it is further expanding its military capabilities, penetrating deeper into the Syrian military and civilian structures and working on demographic engineering through settling Shia militia and their families in and around Damascus and in various other places in the country.

Even if for different reasons, what Iran is doing in Syria is a nuisance for almost all, including for Russia, even though they are on the same side and even for some parts of the Assad regime.

The most annoyed nation with Iran’s presence is Israel and it is determined not to allow a free hand to it in Syria.

Israel frequently strikes Iranian and proxy targets there. These targets have included IRGC camps around Abu Kamal and depots in Masyaf where missiles were said to be kept. Israel has also struck the airports of Damascus and Aleppo to prevent Iranian planes from landing. It has been said that these planes were carrying equipment which would boost Iran’s military capabilities, which would also be used against Israel.

It has been reported that Russia has asked Iran to stop its activities, especially in areas near Israel so as not to provoke it.

Another major issue regarding Syria is Türkiye’s apparent new Syria policy. President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan’s comments a few weeks ago demonstrated an intent of “making up with the Assad regime” and the issue is now up for heated public debate in Türkiye.

With upcoming elections in 2023, the Turkish government needs to do something or needs to appear to be doing something about security and refugee issues.

Syrian refugees in Türkiye and their return to their homeland have become major domestic policy issues in particular.

Since last May, President Erdoğan has been talking about another major military operation in northern Syria with the aim of pushing back the YPG from places where it still remains and creating a zone that would be the place that Syrians in Türkiye could return to.

Almost all actors, be it Türkiye’s “allies” (USA, EU countries) or so-called regional partners (Russia, Iran), are against such an operation. Apparently, Putin has advised Erdoğan to talk to Assad in order to deal with security concerns.

President Erdogan has not turned down the suggestion of his Russian counterpart. In fact, Erdogan’s statements on the way back from Tehran and especially Sochi were very clear on the importance he attaches to what Putin says.

Turkish-Russian relations are interesting and complex. Syria is not a stand alone issue in the relations between the two. It is more realistic to look at it as part of a package that includes the war in Ukraine, the Caucasus, Libya as well as bilateral relations including power plants, natural gas, and tourism among others.

On the other hand, continued US support to the YPG angers Erdoğan and draws him closer to Russia.

The USA is reported to have established a third base near the city of Al-Qamishli in the Kurdish-dominated and YPG-controlled part of Syria. The two have also conducted a joint military exercise in the northeastern end of the country. Around 900 American troops are said to be present in Syria with a major stated objective of maintaining pressure on ISIS.

The Assad regime and the YPG are known to be cooperating in a number of areas, including oil trade. They also cooperate or give the impression that they do, with Russia’s encouragement, against outside threats, meaning Türkiye.

An important issue regarding YPG or the Kurds is what happens with them in the future of Syria. YPG leaders have stated that they will respect the territorial integrity of the country but they will not fall behind what they have now, meaning that they will insist on some kind of self-rule.

This issue is of common concern for Ankara and Damascus as well as the Syrian opposition.

I guess this must be one of the major topics of discussion at the meetings between the heads of Turkish and Syrian intelligence organizations. It was reported that their last meeting was held in Moscow a few days ago. There are no official statements on these talks, so what goes on there is not known for sure and is up for speculation.

But in fact, what the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad said during his press conference in Moscow during his last visit there, gives a good idea about the obvious. Mikdad specifically referred to the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria and putting an end to support given to armed groups as well as interfering in Syria’s domestic issues. It would come as no surprise that Türkiye has its own version of concerns and requests.

The question now is whether the talks between Turkish and Syrian spy chiefs have matured enough to lead the process to the next stage, that is to the political level.

Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu had revealed that he had run into his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mikdad at an international meeting in Belgrade last October and that they had a conversation.

Could it be that the Ministers of Türkiye and Syria or some other high-ranking officials run into each other once again, this time in the corridors of the United Nations building, on the occasion of the UN General Assembly which will begin in New York on 20 September? This is not something that could not happen.

Whatever the case, there are many issues to be dealt with including the future of the Kurds, refugees, armed groups, Syrian opposition, Idlib and the list goes on. These are only the general headings and as one goes into subtitles, things get even more complicated.

Then there is the big question as to how other actors, such as Russia, Iran, the USA and several Arab nations, all with different and often conflicting agendas, would react.

Clearly, the road ahead is very bumpy with many potential dead ends.

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