With ISIS (Daesh) now fully eliminated as a military force in eastern Syria, the Syrian Arab Army and its international partners are concentrating on the last primary hotbeds of terrorism in the country: Idlib Governorate and the Golan Heights.
In both areas, pockets of al-Qaeda (aka al-Nusra, aka HTS) as well as FSA terrorists continue to incur losses. The Syrian Arab Army continues to make gains in the Golan, in spite of increasingly frequent acts of Israeli aggression, while in Idlib, the Syrian Arab Army is rapidly making gains from the south with Russia air support, while Turkey continues its controversial (from Syria’s perspective) role near its border with Syria.
Speaking after a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the following,
“The situation in Idlib continues to be complex, and we are working, above all, with our Turkish, Iranian (Russia, Turkey and Iran are the guarantor nations of Syria’s ceasefire) and Syrian counterparts to launch the de-escalation zone in that part of the Syrian Arab Republic as effectively as possible. There are no plans with the United States on this specific region of Syria. I believe that’s totally counterproductive”.
Lavrov expressed his feelings that the remaining operations against terrorist groups will be completed in short order. He stated,
“As for Syria and the joint fight against ISIS, ISIS has been completely defeated, in fact. The president gave corresponding assessments. The remaining flashpoints do not pose a serious threat and will be quashed”.
This statement is highly significant for two reasons. First of all, Turkey, as a member of NATO, could easily call on the US to support its operations in Idlib which while formally opposed by Damascus, have been sanctioned by a memorandum of the Astana group, which Syria itself approved.
Turkey clearly is more comfortable working with Russia and Iran than with the United States, a reality which marks a significant turn from the situation as recently as earlier this year.
Turkey is rapidly moving away from the US and its traditional allies on many fronts, not least in respect of the Kurdish issue in Syria, over which the US has recently broken its promise made to Turkey over withdrawing armed support for Kurdish militants.
In a further indication of Turkey’s radically new position in Syria, some reports from the region have suggested that Russia’s President Putin is trying to arrange a meeting between Syrian President al-Assad and Turkish President Erdogan. While these reports are not verified, the trend of slow but steady Turkish rapprochement with Syria, most likely at a behind the scenes level, is now all but inevitable.
Secondly, Lavrov’s statement follows a consistent line of highly critical statements from Russia, regarding the illegal presence of US troops on Syrian territory. Calling a would-be US presence in Idlib “counterproductive” follows on from earlier remarks by Lavrov which effectively told the US to exit from Syria, as well as those of Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova who called the US presence in Syria an “occupation”.
As the Syrian conflict nears an end, the US is being seen increasingly as a burden and an aggressor by all major parties to the conflict, including its erstwhile Turkish ally.
Russia’s ability to maintain healthy contacts with Kurdish militants in Syria without losing Turkey’s trust, while the US is steadily alienating both its Kurdish proxies and Turkey, ultimately favours de-escalation in Syria as well as a Russian or Iranian engineered rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus.
If and more likely when Syrian and Turkish troops come face to face in a post-war Idlib, Russia and Iran are in a position to ensure that this meeting is not a hostile one.