TEHRAN (Tasnim) – A Moscow-based political commentator said Israel will remain the most “dire threat” to Syria after the complete defeat of the Daesh (ISIL or ISIS) terrorists in the Arab country.
“… the most dire threat facing Syria will continue to be Israel, which has bombed the Arab Republic multiple times in the past under the pretext of combating what it says are ‘Iranian forces’ or their ‘allied militias’ (Hezbollah), regardless if the attacks only end up killing Syrians,” Andrew Korybko, a political analyst at the Moscow-based Geopolitika.Ru think tank, told the Tasnim News Agency.
Following is the full text of the interview:
Tasnim: Russia, Iran, and Turkey, which together act as guarantor states in peace talks for Syria, have agreed on the details of a “de-escalation zone” in the Arab country’s western Idlib province during resolution talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana. In a joint statement, the three countries said on Friday they had agreed “to allocate” their forces to patrol the zone covering Idlib province and parts of the neighboring Latakia, Hama and Aleppo regions. The guarantor countries have decided to introduce a joint Iranian-Russian-Turkish Coordination Center “to coordinate activities in the de-escalation areas,” according to the statement. What’s your take on this?
Korybko: The agreement between the Tripartite of Great Powers to implement the Idlib “de-escalation zone” is a welcome one which helps militarily stabilize the situation in the peripheral province and advance the much-desired “political solution” that all sides have publicly proclaimed is their eventual goal in ending the War on Syria. For the most part, it essentially grants quasi-legal status to Turkish forces in the region, provided of course that they “officially” operate under the aegis of being “observers” to the ceasefire. This de-escalates the state-to-state tensions between Syria and Turkey and allows them to focus more intently on the simmering situation in the northeastern part of the Arab Republic where pro-American Kurdish forces have carved out a de-facto independent statelet. It also indicates that there’s a certain level of tacit Russian-facilitated coordination between Damascus and Ankara, though both sides would publicly deny this for their own domestic political reasons. Even so, Russia and Iran wouldn’t have granted Turkey such semi-official military rights in Syria’s northwestern province had Damascus not signaled its prior approval. Even if it later comes out to criticize Ankara, this would be for Syria’s own internal political motives and not so much as a condemnation of the deal that Moscow and Tehran struck last week in Astana.
Having explained the more sensitive nuances of the Astana agreement as they relate to Turkey and Syria, it’s now pertinent to talk a bit about how this relates to the broader Tripartite Great Power coordination between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. These three countries have been converging their geostrategic interests in Syria for over the past year, though the process didn’t become formalized until the late-December Moscow meeting between their three Foreign Ministers. There was always suspicion that Turkey was the “weakest link” in this arrangement and the most likely to crash this delicate diplomatic arrangement, but time has since proven that Ankara is indeed very committed to the Astana peace process and has done a lot in the past nine months to distance itself from its erstwhile Western “partners”. Despite being a nominal NATO member and an EU aspirant, Turkey just concluded a game-changing military-technical deal with Russia to purchase its S-400 anti-air defense systems and has been making strong strides towards strengthening its relationship with the SCO. Bearing in mind the considerable international pressure that President Erdogan is under from the West, and not losing sight of the conspiratorial situation inside of his country following the failed pro-American coup against him last summer, the political courage of the Turkish leader deserves to be recognized in this respect.
There won’t always be perfectly harmonious relations between all three Great Powers, and it’s assumed that geopolitical contradictions will naturally arise from time to time in generating differing degrees of friction, but the Tripartite format of cooperation over Syria provides a mechanism for settling any forthcoming disputes before they ever get to the level of endangering their multilateral relations. It’s in view of this that the Astana peace process should thus far be appraised as much more successful than it’s given credit for. Nobody should have unrealistically assumed that the first meeting in late January would have instantly brought about the long-awaited “political solution” to the War on Syria, though it did set the stage for future progress on this front, as can be seen in hindsight. Apart from jumpstarting the previously moribund peace talks and eventually implementing the “de-escalation zones”, the Astana framework importantly brought Russia, Iran, and Turkey together for the first time in history in a positive multilateral capacity. The obvious benefits that are being reaped in terms of the unprecedented trust and coordination that’s developing between these three Great Powers will in time go far beyond Syria’s borders and set the parameters for a multipolar version of the so-called “New Middle East”.
Tasnim: We know that de-escalation zones are a temporary measure intended to pave the way for peace talks and a resolution to the six-year armed conflict in Syria. Do you think lasting peace will one day prevail in the Arab country?
Korybko: The existing anti-terrorist phase of the War on Syria is drawing to an end with Daesh’s imminent defeat, and this is occurring concurrently with a strengthening of the political process through the Astana talks and the joint Russian-Saudi initiative to unify the “opposition” into a single entity. These two developments make it likely that the previous years of fighting won’t repeat themselves in the near future as all stakeholders – both internal and external – come closer to an agreement for how a post-Daesh Syria should look. The final decision is ultimately up to the Syrians themselves, of course, but each party’s foreign partners are working out deals amongst themselves to facilitate this sooner than later because of the enormous amount of strategic fatigue that’s setting in after over half a decade of intensive warfare.
It’ll still take time to hash out the details for what a reconstituted Syria will look like, particularly concerning UNSC Res. 2254’s mandated constitutional reform and forthcoming elections, but the country’s trajectory has visibly shifted ever since the beginning of the Russian anti-terrorist intervention two years ago. Syria is no longer on an ever-accelerating descent into chaos, but is finally climbing out of what at one time seemed like a bottomless pit, and a cautious optimism is now emerging that a political reconciliation might indeed be possible. That said there are still many fault lines within the country, which could lead to a sudden aggravation of the post-Daesh situation there.
The first one is that Salafist sympathizers might attempt to wage a terrorist insurgency in the liberated areas at the behest of their Western and (Persian) Gulf patrons who want to put pressure on Damascus during forthcoming peace negotiations. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will need to work very closely with its Russian, Iranian, and militia allies to make sure that the country doesn’t turn into a mid-2000s version of Iraq. Despite the present anti-terrorist phase of the War on Syria almost being over by now with Daesh’s expected defeat by the end of the year, a new non-territorial one might emerge which replaces the group’s “caliphate” concept with the “traditional terrorism” that Al Qaeda has long been known for.
This isn’t just military challenge but also a political one which needs to be dealt with, the former through multilateral cooperative measures with Russia and Iran, and the latter via inclusive peace-making efforts which decrease the attractiveness of terrorist recruitment. Only Syrians know how to proceed with the second-mentioned step, and all moves in this direction need to be Syrian-led and -owned, but it also shouldn’t naively be assumed that even the best peace proposals will completely eradicate the scourge of terrorism, since this is first and foremost a weapon for foreign forces seeking to influence the sovereign affairs of the targeted state. Syria will always remain a terrorist target because of its geostrategic position, so a holistic anti-terrorist policy incorporating a variety of initiatives (military, political, social, economic, ideological, etc.) will have to remain an enduring characteristic of the state.
Moving up to the next level of threats facing the country, Syria will have to confront the so-called “Kurdish Question” sooner than later. The pro-American PYD-YPG Kurds unilaterally declared a “federalized state” in the northeastern part of the country in complete contravention of the country’s constitution back in spring 2016, and they’ve proceeded to attract roughly 10 American bases and hundreds of US troops in the de-facto internally partitioned territory in the time since. As noble of a goal as it is for Syria to endeavor to liberate every square inch of its territory, it’s extremely unlikely that it will be able to do so under the geopolitical condition of heavy American military support for their Kurdish proxies. Russia does not want to enter into a military conflict with the US over “Rojava” because this could quickly escalate to a nuclear standoff and completely destroy the faint chance which still exists for it to enter into a future rapprochement with Washington.
It’s much more probable then that Moscow will seek to leverage its envisioned 21st-century geopolitical role as the Eurasian “balancer” in reaching a “gentleman’s agreement” with the US whereby the two Great Powers agree to freeze the post-Daesh battle lines between the SAA and YPG pending a political resolution to the “Kurdish Question” in line with the constitutional reform and new elections mandated by UNSC Res. 2254. In the meantime, Russia and the US could convey to their on-the-ground allies that they will not support them in any offensive against the other which violates the frail peace between the two after Daesh is defeated, which could work to stabilize the situation and stimulate both sides to enter into a series of “mutually acceptable” “compromises”.
Nevertheless, regardless of the eventual outcome (which will probably result in some sort of broad “autonomy” for the Kurds), the odds are very slim that the US will close its 10 or so bases and withdraw its hundreds of troops from “Rojava”, so it might already be a fait accompli that Washington has succeeded in carving a “second geopolitical ‘Israel’” out of northeastern Syria. It’s difficult to think of any scenario where Washington would abandon its geostrategic gains in this pivotal corner of the Mideast without being militarily compelled to do so by Russia, which won’t happen for the reasons explained above. Therefore, the only realistic forecast is that Syria and its partners might have to begrudgingly accept this new American outpost in the region, understanding that while it’s indeed a ticking time bomb for a future Kurdish conflict, at least the crisis is postponed until an uncertain date in the future by which time Damascus might be able to shape the situation more to its favor (or at least properly defend against what might come next after first stabilizing its liberated Arab-majority home front).
Lastly, the most dire threat facing Syria will continue to be “Israel”, which has bombed the Arab Republic multiple times in the past under the pretext of combating what it says are “Iranian forces” or their “allied militias” (Hezbollah), regardless if the attacks only end up killing Syrians. Tel Aviv has been allowed to do this with impunity because Damascus’ military allies in Moscow would never countenance turning their impressive state-of-the-art and globally renowned S-400 anti-missile systems against their country’s close “Israeli” partner. To be clear, the Russian military mandate in Syria is strictly for anti-terrorist ends, and Moscow never indicated that it wanted the Arab Republic to be its modern-day “protectorate”, so legally speaking, Russia has no obligation to defend Syria from the type of aggression that “Israel” regularly victimizes it with unless this poses a clear threat to its own military forces in the country.
Accepting this “realpolitik reality” which is backed up by numerous examples and enshrined into de-facto doctrine through the September 2015 military coordination agreement between Russia and “Israel”, there are no grounds for expecting that Tel Aviv will stop the bombing raids that it carries out against Syria under supposed “anti-Iranian” pretexts. Rather, one could even predict that they might intensify in the near future as “Israel” seeks to prevent Hezbollah from consolidating any advantageous positions anywhere near the Zionist entity’s so-called “borders”. To this end, “Israel” will use a combination of “surgical strikes” against the group and anyone affiliated with it in the nearby areas (the SAA, Iran’s IRGC, other allied militias, and even civilians) and deft diplomacy with Russia to convince Moscow to turn a blind eye to what’s going on. What “Israel” wants more than anything is to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, and it’s using its anti-Syrian airstrikes in an attempt to accomplish this.
It’s not Russia’s place to tell Syria what military forces it’s allowed to cooperate with and which parts of the country should be off limits to their joint activity, but “Israel” would ideally like to leverage its strategicpartnershipwithRussia to get it to pressure Damascus in this direction regardless. That doesn’t mean that the plan will succeed, but just that it’s the most “logical” one available and will likely be attempted in some capacity or another. If Russia can “convince” Syria not to allow IRGC, Hezbollah, and allied militias near “sensitive borders” in order to not “trigger” more airstrikes, then this would serve “Israeli” interests. Should any progress be made on advancing this scenario, one shouldn’t forget that Russia wouldn’t be doing this for “anti-Iranian” reasons, but because it believes this strategy to be in neutral and apolitical accordance with its envisioned 21st-century geopolitical role in being the supreme “balancing” force in Eurasia, which in this case would manifest itself as trying to “balance” Iranian and “Israeli” interests in Syria.
Tasnim: The violence in Syria seems to be toning down as Daesh is losing the last vestiges of its territory. In the latest development, the Syrian Army took control of oilfields and a gas refinery near the city of Deir ez-Zor. Recently, the Russian Defense Ministry said that Syria’s military had liberated around 85 percent of the country’s territory from the control of the Takfiri terrorists. It seems that the US is not satisfied with the current situation in the Arab country and that it will do everything necessary not to let certain powers establish a stronger foothold there. What do you think?
Korybko: The US will continue to pull the three previously mentioned levers of destabilization (Salafists, Kurds, and “Israel”, all three of which are closely interrelated) in attempting to impede the military progress that’s been made in liberating the rest of Syria, as well as to disrupt the tremendous steps that have been made in respect to the Syrian peace process. It’ll probably stop short of direct military involvement except to support the PYD against the SAA if Damascus “violates” any potential Russian-American “gentleman’s agreement” to freeze the battle lines between their two on-the-ground partners.
It’s undoubtedly Syria’s sovereign right to liberate every square inch of its territory like President Assad promised, but the nature of “realpolitik deal-making” between Russia and the US might make this a practical impossibility because of Moscow’s reluctance to enter into conflict with Washington over “Rojava”. Taking this into account, the US might encourage its PYD proxies to provoke the SAA along the “line of contact” that will probably more or less correspond to the Euphrates River (except for the small pockets of territory that both sides might have retained by that time on the other side), which could then serve as a tripwire for “justifying” American “surgical strikes” against the SAA in seeking to put more pressure on both Damascus and Moscow to enter into advantageous political concessions towards the Salafists and Kurds in Astana and Geneva. This would be a very dangerous development, but it wouldn’t be surprising considering the bullying brinksmanship that the Trump Administration has practiced thus far.
As for the Salafist element of its “toolkit”, the US might have less success wielding this weapon than in the past, though provided that Russia is able to reach bilateral agreements with the groups’ more regionally close Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari sponsors. That already seems to be happening, as can be visibly witnessed by Russia’s growing relations with all three actors, and the effect might be that the US is progressively squeezed out of the Salafist arena and ultimately left with a lot less influence on these fighters than at any time since the War on Syria started. Having said that, it’s inferred that neither Turkey, Saudi Arabia, nor Qatar would agree to reduce the amount of support that they give to their proxies unless they were also promised something in return. One can only speculate about what this might be, but it could see Damascus applying a military-political approach in granting many of their members amnesty and allowing them to participate in the peace process, therefore replicating what’s already happened through the “rehabilitation” of Jaysh al-Islam.
The final means available for the US to realistically interfere with the military-political progress being made in resolving the War on Syria is to obviously call upon its “Israeli” ally to ratchet up its attacks in the country. This could lead to unpredictable consequences if it spirals out of control and Syria and her Iranian, Hezbollah, and other allied militias independently decide to retaliate without consulting Russia. There’s indeed a very dangerous chance that the situation could quickly escalate into a larger war in this context, which is why Russia believes that it’s more important than ever for it to play the role of a “balancing intermediary” between both sides. Moscow can’t ever replace Washington’s influence over Tel Aviv, but the very close personal rapport between President Putin and Netanyahu testifies to the fact that both leaders sincerely appreciate one another and might even share a certain degree of trust, too.
If Russia is skillful enough, then it might be able to counterbalance the US’ influence by dissuading “Israel” away from sabotaging Syria’s military-political progress, though only of course if it can first “convince” Damascus not to allow the IRGC, Hezbollah, and other allied militias near “sensitive border areas”.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organisation except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.