Key words: Turkey, Russia, Iran, Syria, Damascus, U.S. , NATO.
By Elijah J. Magnier: @
A general ceasefire was announced by Moscow and Damascus over the entire Syrian territory. The official announcement excluded the “Islamic State” (ISIS) and al-Qaida (Nusra or JabhatFateh al-Sham) and all jihadists fighting on Syrian soil. This statement issued by Russia and Syria has multiple goals, but above all excludes the US administration and any current European role in this Middle Eastern war, regardless of the outcome of the ceasefire. Iran, according to well-connected sources, agrees on the ceasefire but looks at it with suspicion. So the main issue is: how long can this ceasefire hold? Who would feel damaged by its implementation? What would be the reaction on the ground?
This general ceasefire came with the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of his wish to pull some forces out of Syria, reminding observers of the previous Russian step taken when a similar deal was reached between Moscow and Washington, but failed weeks later, earlier this year.
This time, however, the ceasefire was not announced by the superpowers (Russia and USA) but by the two main players in Syria, Moscow and Ankara, who both have important control over the most influential militants and soldiers engaged in the Syrian war. The influence role of the US cannot be ruled out, especially if they count on their allies (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who themselves enjoy significant influence and certainly cannot be excluded from any peace talks.
Russia has the upper hand over the Syrian Army, Iran and its proxies, while Turkey is capable of exerting considerable pressure over many rebel groups, excluding al-Qaida and some jihadist groups linked to it. Because Russia is dealing with officials representing their respective countries (Damascus and Tehran), its leverage is guaranteed. This may not be the case for Turkey, having to deal with many sub-groups among the jihadists and the rebels, supported by the US and countries of the region, and who would do everything in their power to see Moscow-Tehran-Turkey failing in Syria.
In fact, Ahrar al-Sham, the biggest group among rebels, is already divided between “Ahrar” and “Jaish al-Ahrar”, showing differences in ideology, belonging and goals. “Jaish al-Ahrar” is more keen to merge with al-Qaida, a step described by Turkey as “self-condemnation to the militants’ own destruction”, because they would thus become a legitimate target for Russia and Turkey in the months to come. If many rebels and jihadists reject the ceasefire, these will weaken Turkey’s position even further, following the stagnation of its forces at the gates of the northern Syrian city of al-Bab.
Russia may see in Turkey a strong partner due to its influence over rebels and jihadists. If the result turns out to be weak and inefficient, Turkey, a NATO member and a custodian of over 50 US nuclear bombs, will be under Russian influence and Russia will no longer deal with it as a partner but as one of the minor players in Syria.
Damascus and its allies are watching with great suspicion this general ceasefire, imposed by Russia as a test of Turkish capabilities and influence in Syria. It is in Damascus’ interest to see Turkey sinking into the quagmire of Syria, showing its limitations rather than the image the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wishes to present, as a Middle Eastern superpower and “spokesman” for the region’s Sunnis.
This is what is pushing Damascus and its allies to reject a Russian proposal to push forces toward Palmyra, under the control of ISIS. In fact, Damascus and its allies would like to allow ISIS to feel less under pressure on that front so its main force will be dedicated to fight Turkey. The Syrian Army and its allies have the task of consolidating the T4 airport and defend it against any ISIS attack. For the rest, the Syrian Army allies are refusing to send forces- as AL RAI have learned – to Palmyra for now. The more Turkey sinks into the war and suffers losses, the better Damascus feels about its intervention in the northern part of the country.
This doesn’t apply for al-Qaida: Iran is pushing Russia to continue the war in the direction of al-Qaida controlled areas and other jihadists and rebels. The general idea is simple: any conquest of ISIS territory represents no leverage around the negotiation table with Turkey or with the international community. This is not the case of any other territory under the control of rebels and jihadists. The land under their control is preciously negotiated by the Middle Eastern countries involved with their proxies on the ground. Moreover, the weaker that Turkey is represented in Syria, the more it will be dependent on Russia to intervene and offer its own intelligence and air force.
Turkey lost over 38 officer soldiers (among these the commander of the Turkish Special Forces enaged in Syria) at al-Bab and more than 60 wounded. More than 100 militants of its proxies fighting with the Turkish Army have been killed. Moreover, ISIS is humiliating captured Ankara soldiers and burning prisoners, and announces that more officers were captured and are still in captivity, waiting for a new video to come out. Civilians are suffering from the Turkish Air Force bombing, killing dozens.
Despite all this, Ankara is announcing its will to establish a “safe zone” in the north. For this to work, it needs Russia, Damascus and the Kurds’ approval because no foreign force could hold the ground in the long term without being subject to insurgency. Damascus will never agree to a long presence of the Turkish forces, neither would Russia. But as long as there is the danger of a possible US intervention to divide Syria (as a façade to its military bases in the Kurdish controlled area), and as long as ISIS is present, Turkey is considered most welcome to bang its head against all its enemies in the north.
Whatever the outcome is going to be, ISIS’s humiliation of the Turkish army is manifested at the gates of the city of al-Bab (meaning gate or door in Arabic). Over 2000 estimated ISIS members fight one of the strongest armies in the Middle East, and they shake it, forcing Ankara to ask for US air intervention, and forcing Erdogan to implement a total blackout and disinformation on the social media platforms and local media. The aim is to make them refrain from publishing the result of his first battle against ISIS, and is especially manifested when official sources declare that the images of the burned Turkish soldiers (by ISIS) “are fake”.
Russia is in need of a good partner or even a weak partner to dominate the political chess game in Syria and impose its will, as it has done successfully in a time of war, when peace knocks the doors of Syria. Indeed the ceasefire may not hold for long because many parties involved don’t feel comfortable to laying down their arms before witnessing the real intention of the new US President Donald Trump. Only then can the length of the war in Syria be measured, but this step certainly lies in the path of any peace process.