Putin changes conversation on Syria with cease-fire plan

Russia, Iran and Turkey have agreed to be guarantors of a six-month cease-fire in four Syrian regions — Idlib and parts of its neighboring provinces, Eastern Ghouta, northern Homs, and areas around Daraa and al-Quneitra provinces — to de-escalate violence, facilitate humanitarian access and improve the conditions for a political settlement.  UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura praised the agreement as a “promising and positive step in the right direction.” With the Astana agreement, Russian President Vladimir Putin has again changed the conversation on Syria, making clear to Washington that the road to both a political settlement and the defeat of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda passes through Moscow.

Just last month US-Russia collaboration on Syria, which US President Donald Trump had proposed during the US presidential campaign, seemed on life support. There had been an international outcry over allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing over 90. The US intelligence community had assessed with a “very high level of confidence” that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against the town in Idlib province April 2, and responded with a missile attack on a Syrian air base. The Russian government rejected US accusations of Syrian blame, condemned the US missile attack and stepped back from the US-Russia conflict-avoidance arrangements in Syria.

But Putin seized on an ill-defined American plan for “safe zones” in Syria to put US-Russia partnership back in play. A White House statement noted that Trump and Putin discussed “safe, or de-escalation, zones to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons,” in a telephone call May 2. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov linked the de-escalation zones in the Astana agreement to earlier US proposals for “safe zones” to reduce violence in Syria, telling MIR TV on May 6, “It is not by chance that the United States welcomed the results of the meeting in Astana, specifically an agreement on setting up de-escalation zones.” The same day, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and the Russian chief of the General Staff of the armed forces, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, affirmed their commitment to conflict-avoidance operations in Syria.

Although the State Department made clear that the United States was not a party to the agreement, despite the presence of Acting Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones at the Astana talks, and that Washington has concerns about the role of Iran as a “guarantor” of the agreement, the United States nonetheless encouraged Syrian opposition groups to participate in the talks and declared that “the opposition must also live up to its commitments, with Turkey as the guarantor, to separate from designated terrorist groups, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which continue to hijack the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people for a representative and accountable government.”

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is a coalition of radical Salafi groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

Because military operations against IS and al-Qaeda and its affiliates continue, the Astana agreement reopens the possibility of deepening US-Russian coordination beyond conflict avoidance, especially as the United States readies an offensive against IS in Raqqa. The deal calls on parties to “take all necessary measures to continue the fight against [IS], Jabhat al-Nusra and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with al-Qaeda or [IS] as indicated by the UN Security Council within and outside the de-escalation areas.” On May 5, Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the chief of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Operational Directorate, stressed that the memorandum of understanding “does not stop fighting against terrorists of [IS] and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. State guarantors undertake to continue fighting against formations of these and other terrorist organizations in the de-escalation zones as well as provide assistance to the government troops and armed opposition in fighting insurgents in other areas of Syria. After establishing the de-escalation zones, the government troops will be sent to continue offensive on the [IS] formations in the central and eastern parts of Syria as well as to liberate areas located along the River Euphrates.”

Four weeks ago, this column predicted that Russia might consider “reinforced military deployments or even a Russian no-fly zone” following the US attack on the Shayrat air base.

The inclusion of Turkey in the deal suggests that Washington may require Moscow’s good offices to manage Turkey’s role in Syria. Last week, we wrote that following Turkey’s airstrikes against the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, the United States is “out on a limb as Turkey, a NATO ally, is almost daring the United States to continue its reliance on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose most effective fighters are drawn primarily from the YPG, in the long-anticipated military campaign to expel IS from Raqqa.”

Maxim Suchkov writes, “As Moscow has sought a reliable way to move the Syrian conflict from the battlefield into the political realm (the conflict has gradually claimed more Russian lives and drained more resources) the idea of safe zones became worth exploring. The concept only had to be recalibrated to meet at least three objectives: to not impede Russia’s own military actions on the ground; to be packaged as Russia’s own political achievement domestically; and to be presented as a genuine international effort co-mediated by Turkey and Iran to get them on board. Besides, such a move would also be helpful to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranians that Moscow is not “selling them out to Americans” as they fear. At the same time there is an understanding that without Washington, implementing the initiative would be more difficult. Hence, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it is willing to resume discussions with the United States — which Russia halted after the strikes on the Shayrat air base — on a flight safety memorandum designed to prevent midair collisions.

“For now, the Russian Defense Ministry says safe zones will be a key tool in securing these immediate goals:

  • To divide moderate opposition forces from the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham
  • To more freely deliver humanitarian aid to population in the de-escalation areas
  • To restore infrastructure and water facilities in the zones so refugees can return.”

Suchkov adds, “Most importantly, the memorandum is seen as a key step to stop the fighting in Syria. … Operationally, Russians believe that the safe zone initiative will untie the Syrian government’s hands and help Assad direct forces to liberate central and eastern parts of Syria from IS, including territories along the Euphrates River and east of Palmyra. All that would help with preparing a large-scale offensive on IS-held Deir ez-Zor. The Russian military makes it clear it will support those efforts with its airstrikes.