Joseph Puder, Moscow brings Israeli and Syrian officials together.
Syria is still in a state of chaos, and unending bloodletting. Russia is however trying to play a constructive role in facilitating a dialogue between the Assad regime and Israel. Although it is not aimed at bringing peace, it might be helpful at some point.
In the meantime, the Turks are pushing deeper into northeastern Syria in an effort to thwart the Kurdish dream of some form of self-determination. The Turkish army has attacked the town of Ain Issa, 45 kilometers from the Turkish border and inside Syria’s Kurdish area. Its location, on the M4 highway, happens to be where the headquarters of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) is located. The SDF is a US ally in the fight against the Islamic State terrorists. Turkish army attacks forced thousands of Kurds to flee from their homes to the city of Raqqa, 55km to the south.
In the province of Hasakah, the SDF has been confronting Assad’s forces. The latter is seeking to consolidate its authority over all of Syria. Currently, the Assad regime controls about 72.8% of the pre- civil-war Syria. The Kurds are in control of some 20% of Syria, in the traditional Kurdish areas of northeastern Syria. The Turks and some of the Islamist groups hold the balance of Syrian land, mainly in the Idlib province and along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Russian intervention that saved the Assad regime from defeat has been trying to mediate between the Kurds, and the Assad regime.
The resurrected Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), although deprived of a territorial base, is operating in eastern Syria mostly in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), in 2020, ISIS mounted 480 operations, and killed more than 888 people, mostly Assad government forces, Hezbollah, and other Iranian backed militiamen. ISIS also killed 432 Kurdish civilians and SDF fighters. Most of the ISIS attacks occurred in Deir Ezzor, and some took place in Raqqa (its former headquarters and capital), Aleppo, Homs, Hasakah, and Dara’a.
In the Idlib war zone, in northwestern Syria, the Islamist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham controls the city of Idlib, and is working closely with the Turkish Expeditionary Forces. Hurras al-Din, a split away faction from Hayat Tahrir, is operating against both the Russians and the Turks. The Turkish military has however, consolidated its control east of Idlib, with about 20,000 troops. Although there seems to be a Russian-Turkish truce at this time in the Idlib area, the Turks are anticipating the Assad government forces to launch an offensive to retake the area, with active participation of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) units, and Iranian backed Shiite militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group.
The Iranians have recently moved some of their bases away from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, to areas close to the Iraqi border. This comes as a result of Israeli resolve to remove the Iranian presence in Syria. It poses a direct threat to Israel. The Iranians moved their equipment and personnel to residential areas in Deir Ezzor, Albukamal, and Al-Mayadin, where they are storing their rockets and heavy equipment in tunnels.
The intent of the various players on the Syrian scene is increasingly apparent. The Assad regime wants to reassert its control over pre-civil-war Syrian territory. The Turks seek to prevent the Kurds from establishing an autonomous, if not an independent entity in northeastern Syria. As a claimant to the title of “protector of Sunni-Muslims,” Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is supporting the Islamist rebels in Idlib.
The Russians are interested in maintaining their naval and air bases in Tartus and Latakia, which provides Moscow with access to the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, they hope to reap a windfall in the reconstruction of Syria. As the protectors of the Assad regime, they expect to receive the lion’s share of the contracts.
For the US under President Trump, America’s job was done with the defeat of ISIS. The US is not however, included in the Astana peace process, which involves Russia, Turkey, and Iran. These three states hypocritically claim to respect Syria’s sovereignty as they entrench their forces on Syrian soil. At the same time, they are rebuking the US for backing the Kurdish-led SDF.
Iran’s nefarious aims are transparent. Tehran seeks a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The radical Ayatollahs regime plans to surround Israel with bases near the Golan Heights and elsewhere in Syria, as well as in Southern Lebanon, where its proxy Hezbollah is poised to attack Israel with lethal missiles.
For its part, Israel has tried to stay out of the Syrian quagmire. It cannot however, allow the Iranians and their proxies to establish bases armed with missiles aimed at Israel’s population centers. For Israel, the Iranian presence in Syria is an existential threat.
According to a Syrian Bridges Center for Studies report, the director of Syria’s National Security Office, Major General Ali Mamlouk, and Security Advisor at the Syrian Palace, Bassam Hassan, recently met with Israel’s former IDF Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and former Mossad officer Ari Ben Menashe at the Russian Hmeimim base in Latakia, Syria. Al-Arabiya reported that the commander of the Russian base, General Alexander Tchaikov, chaired the meeting.
The report revealed that the Israelis have demanded removal of Iran and its militias, including Hezbollah, from Syria. The Syrians conditions included the facilitation of Syria’s return to the Arab League, obtaining financial aid to pay off its debts to Iran, and ending the western sanctions against Syria. While the meeting didn’t conclude with specific agreements, it appears, according to the Russians, that it constitutes the beginning of a path that Russia is pushing toward a major expansion in 2021.
Apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to emulate Donald Trump in being a peace-maker between Israel and an Arab state. The report concluded that Moscow hopes that building a direct relationship between the Syrian regime and Israel could constitute a lifeline that would enable it to obtain international support for its political project in Syria. Naturally, a deal between Israel and Syria that ousted Iran from Syria would benefit Russia as well. It would end Israeli attacks in Syria, and eliminate Iranian competition with Russia in the reconstruction of Syria, as well as Iranians vying for major influence in Syria.
While Russia’s peace efforts between Israel and Syria are commendable, it may be more hype than reality. Russia’s major newspaper Pravda headline from January 16, 2007, read, “Israel and Syria Reach Understanding on Peace Agreement in a Secret Meeting.” Eyal Alima, an Israeli journalist specializing in military affairs pointed out that, “Russia always plays a role in mediating between Damascus and Israel to prevent things from exploding,” and added, “Russia is important to Israel, not only militarily, but also for stability.” Perhaps in the midst of the chaos in Syria, a positive step is being taken by Russia.