The Astana Group has concluded a meeting whose primary result was the establishment of a new so-called ‘de-escalation zone’ to cover Idlib Governorate. While the agreement was made jointly with Russia, Iran and Turkey, in respect of Idlib, Turkey is going to take the lead as Turkish forces and proxies already have a substantial presence in Idlib, following on from Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield.
Many are commenting that this development is somehow a ‘surrender’ to Turkey and its jihadist proxies. This has clearly concerned many who seek a full restoration of Syrian sovereignty. As the full restoration of Syrian sovereignty over the entirety of its territory is the only just and legal resolution to the conflict, it is important not to see the developments at Astana as something which will forever threaten such a thing from occurring in the future.
In the broader sense, however, the new Idlib de-escalation zone is about something more strategic and wide reaching.
The fact that Syria, the so-called ‘opposition’, Russia, Iran and Turkey all agreed to the new de-escalation zone, means there is far more than meets the eye in respect of the latest agreement. As with all previous zones established by the Astana Group, the United States and its western/Gulf Arab allies were not involved.
Here are the major implications regarding this controversial de-escalation zone:
1. Legitimising an anti-Kurdish Turkish presence in Syria
While Turkey maintains occupational troops and proxies in Syria (against the letter of international law), Turkey’s withdrawal of support for so called opposition forces in Syria, is a fact that is not going to change. Even the Arab states of the Persian Gulf who have spent substantial sums of money on trying to overthrow the Syrian government, now admit that President Bashar al-Assad isn’t going anywhere. Furthermore, Israel’s clear panic over the fact that the Arab Socialist Ba’ath party will remain in power in Damascus, is a de-facto admission on the part of Tel Aviv, that Israel also didn’t get its wish in Syria.
The war against terrorists in Syria is one which Syria is on the cusp of winning outright and no one is so foolish as to not understand this. While America’s neo-con Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley once again uttered the infamous ‘Assad must go’ mantra, history shows that if anything, this will do more damage to Nikki Haley’s ambitions than to those of Syria’s President.
If anyone assumes that Erdogan is more foolish than Nikki Haley, they are making a wildly incorrect assumption.
Meanwhile, more moderate voices in Washington including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and to a degree Donald Trump, have all but conceded that Assad has won. During the election campaign, Trump indicated his desire to see Assad beat the terrorists and at an emotional level, it does not seem Trump has changed sides.
The next big question-mark for Syria therefore, is not ‘Assad’ versus the jihadists working for regimes whose mantra had been ‘Assad must go’, rather the issue is Syria versus the Kurdish proxies of the United States.
Of all the major powers which are part of the Syrian conflict, legal or otherwise, Turkey is without a doubt the most anti-Kurd. Turkey sees the presence of a would-be semi or fully-independent Kurdish entity anywhere along its borders as a grave threat to its national security. To this end, Turkey has stated that it will not allow an independent Kurdish entity to form on its borders in a clear warning to the United States.
This has the potential to put Turkey completely at odds with the United States, should the US come out and unambiguously call for a Kurdish state in Syria, something which looks increasingly likely as this would be the only way that the US could maintain a presence in Syria without facing tremendous opposition on many fronts.
As many nationalist Kurds seek to create a Kurdish entity on Syrian territory which hugs the Turkish border from Iraq to the sea, Idlib is geographically well placed to launch attacks upon or otherwise stop any would-be Kurdish march west.
With Turkey now having a legitimised presence in Idlib, Turkey can do the lion’s share of the fighting against the Kurds without a great deal of ambiguity over its position. This would allow Syria to concentrate on working with her international partners like Russia, China and Iran on rebuilding the infrastructure of the majority of Syria, while allowing Russia to remain formally agnostic on the Kurdish nationalist issue.
2. Policing the un-policeable
While most eyes have been on Deir ez-Zor and to a degree Raqqa, Idlib has turned into an actual civil war, not between the dwindling number of armed Syrian extremist Sunnis and the government, but a civil war among terrorist groups.
For months, various factions of al-Qaeda, the FSA and Muslim Brotherhood as well as sub-factions of each group have been fighting and killing one another in manners which are incredibly violent. Just yesterday, a so-called judge from an al-Qaeda faction was brutally murdered by members of a rival Salafist terror group.
In this sense, unless one was going to wage total war form the air on Idlib, something which could produce the deeply negative effect of killing civilians, Syria and Russia seems partly content for the terrorist factions of Idlib to continue killing each other before cleaning up the proverbial mess.
It is not clear if Turkey wants to get its hands dirty in this mess. It would appear that Turkey wants to save its soldiers and jihadist loyalists for a fight with the Kurds. This after all is a fight which actually matters most to Turkey. In this sense, Turkey’s proxies in Idlib, are best thought of as mercenaries who will fight whatever battle Turkey asks them to fight, so long as various agreements regarding funds and supplies are maintained. As many are ethnic Turkmen, there will be no love lost between Themistocles and Kurds.
In this sense, while perhaps Turkey along with her Astana partners may attempt to go after some of the warring factions of jihadists, in the short term, it is likely that Turkey will merely try to contain the jihadist civil war in Idlib, making sure that it doesn’t spill over into other areas of interests to Turkey and her Astana partners.
3. Strengthening Russo-Turkish cooperation at the expense of America’s relationship with Turkey
As the United States continues to grow further from Turkey, Russia seeks to continue to display symbolic victories of the Ankara-Moscow partnership, whose success has defied not only expectations but also history.
Coming shortly after the completion of the S-400 defensive missile system sale from Russia to Turkey, the Idlib de-escalation zone is in this sense, a geo-political signpost of Russo-Turkish partnership, one whose long term geo-political implications are more far reaching than they are in respect of the situation on the ground in Syria.
4. The first step in Syria-Turkey reconsecration
In many ways, the most long term development to come out of the latest Astana talks, is that Turkey and Syria have quietly taken their first small step towards reconciliation.
With Syria signing off on the agreement, it means that Syria has quietly legitimised a Turkish presence in Syria, one which is clearly not aimed at regime change, but one which will certainly become one that fends off Kurdish nationalist advances, something that is in the interests of both Turkey and Syria.
While both Presidents Assad and Erdogan are insistent that they do not seek dialogue with one another, this agreement paves the way for such a thing in the future. Ultimately, the two will have to speak again. However, this process will be slow and gradual. It will almost certainly only be possible with the intervention of countries which can speak with both Assad and Erodgan. Such countries are of course Russia and Iran. In this sense, the latest Astana talks have quietly accomplished this goal.
In the short term, the Idlib de-escalation zone will not change the overall realities on the ground in Syria. At the moment, several jihadist terrorist groups are too busy killing one another in Idlib to meaningfully impact the salutation in the wider Syrian conflict.
In the medium term, Turkey now has something of a legitimate mandate to attack Kurdish forces in Syria without having to invoke the Caroline Test or having to specifically coordinate such military moves against the Kurds with Damascus.
In the long term, Turkey and Russia have yet again solidified the fact that their partnership can produce more visible results than what remains of Turkey’s alliance with its fellow NATO members.
Finally, the fact that Syria has agreed to the creation of the de-escalation zone in Idlib, means that the gradual process of reconciling Erdogan’s Turkey with Assad’s Syria, has quietly taken its first small step.
As both Assad and Erdogan will almost certainly be in charge of their countries for the foreseeable future, it will be essential for some sort of reconciliation to eventually occur. While the world is arguing over the short term effects of the latest deal to come out of Astana, they have ignored the most important long term development, which is actually a good thing, as it avoids the kind of publicity that could make any gradual Turkish-Syrian reconciliation regress.