While the final statement of the Tehran Conference announces that there cannot be a military solution to the Syrian crisis, this is window dressing. Putin insists that driving out terrorist groups from Idlib is Russia’s unbending priority. It is interesting that he didn’t make it clear that by that he meant, in particular, Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS).
In the press conference following the summit, Putin underlined the fact that the fighting groups on the ground are very difficult to sort out one from the other, and from the civil population at large. An assault is therefore on the cards, and Turkish appeals for more time for negotiations will not in Russian eyes present enough pressure on HTS for their units to surrender.
Many aspects of the negotiations between Russia and Turkey in particular would not have been made public. Up to a point, much that is going on is an attempt at putting psychological pressure on fighting groups to surrender and give up their arms, and on the civil population to inform on their position to Turkish intelligence services.
Turkey, it seems, will organise a withdrawal of all the fighters under their aegis, in order to isolate those still resisting, thereby adding further psychological pressure, and driving home the reality of the fact that is no long any possibility for negotiating a retreat. However, in the end, Putin’s view of how to deal with terrorists is to act on promises of “a bloodbath” in the event of resistance.
His track record of carnage is a long one and began with the razing of Grozny. I can only hope that the accuracy of Turkish intelligence and the level of their cooperation with the Russians will allow a narrowing down of the zones of conflict in the case of Idlib. The Turkish involvement in Idlib will mitigate the prospective devastation, but not prevent it.
Nevertheless, the Turkish policy of positive involvement with the Syrian people will contribute considerably to the country’s soft power in the region over the long term. Its patience will be rewarded, while Russian policy will cost it dear in the not too long term.
The short-sightedness of supporting a régime in Damascus aiming to extend its influence to all corners of Syria, without the capacity to provide even minimal services in its own back yard, is truly blinding. Chaos and infighting reigns within the ranks of Assad’s régime, and its prisons are full to the brim of political prisoners.
The hollowness of Russia’s call to a (disinterested) world for the reconstruction of Syria is, furthermore, deafening. Syria is an economic black hole. Can it be that Putin is making a noose for his own neck in Syria? And that he will, after helping to kill a few more thousands in Idlib, eventually be turning to Turkey for help?
The most explosive potential problem is the alliance between the Damascus régime and Iran. Unprecedented ethnic cleansing and demographic restructuring in Syria’s capital and in the South West has meant that large communities of Shi’a militia (of Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani origin) under Iranian control are now resident nationals of Syria. When war erupts between Syria and Israel: what will Russia’s position be then?