On September 17, two developments impacted on Russia’s interests in Syria. One, in a reversal of his earlier dismissive position, President Vladimir Putin, at a five-hour meeting at Sochi, agreed to accommodate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence that the military attack on Idlib, the last major bastion of the Syrian opposition, be postponed and he be given more time to arrange a peaceful end to the confrontation between the rebels and government forces.
Two, a few hours after the Sochi agreement, during an Israeli air attack near Latakia, Syrian retaliatory anti-aircraft fire brought down a Russian military plane, killing 15 Russian military personnel on board. Despite Israeli protestations, Russia asserted that an Israeli plane had deliberately “pushed” the Russian aircraft into the line of fire.
These two developments have further complicated the already convoluted Syrian scenario.
The Sochi agreement is a major concession by President Putin. While anxious to avoid a bloodbath in that city with three million people, many of them refugees from other cities, he sees Idlib overrun by 50,000-90,000 militants, including a few thousand elements of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra, and is sceptical about a peaceful outcome.
However, he recognises the high stakes for President Erdogan: Turkey supports a “moderate” opposition group, the National Liberation Front (NLF), made up of Arab and Turkoman fighters, as a counter-weight to the Syrian Kurds, and wishes to ensure they are not annihilated in a full-scale government assault on Idlib. Turkey is also concerned that the battle will lead to thousands of refugees swarming across the Turkish border for safety.
Mr Putin backed Mr Erdogan’s interests at Sochi to retain Turkey, a Nato member but long estranged from the United States, as a regional ally and as a partner, with Iran, in the Russia-led Astana peace process in Syria. Thus, following Sochi, Mr Erdogan has agreed to set up a 15-20 km buffer zone at Idlib by October 15 that will separate government and rebel forces and will be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish military units. By October 10, all militants in Idlib will have to surrender their heavy weapons, including tanks, mortars and heavy artillery.
Turkey will then have the responsibility of separating the “moderate” opposition from the extremist elements, including Jabhat Nusra. Militants will have the option of joining the “moderate” opposition, the NLF, or leave Idlib. Those who retain their weapons and remain in the city could be subjected to targeted attacks. This process should end by December 10. Mr Putin has said that by end-December, the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama highways, passing through Idlib, will become functional.
For Turkey, separating the moderates from the extremists will be difficult. While some extremists could merge with mainstream opposition groups as a tactical ploy, hardcore radicals may not surrender — jihadi ideologue Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi has declared Mr Erdogan an “apostate”, while Jabhat Nusra fighters have refused to give up their weapons. It is also feared that some extremists could sneak into Turkey and carry out terrorist operations.
An important area of uncertainty is the fate of some 3,000 foreign militant fighters at Idlib, mainly from Uzbekistan, Chechnya and some Uighurs from China. While some had earlier joined the Islamic State, most of them have remained with Jabhat Nusra. They form a lethal component of the Hayat Tahrir al Sham alliance of hardline groups, mainly located in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, southwest of Idlib. They are expected to fight hard against the government assault.
Most regional commentators believe that the Turkish peace initiative will fail and military operations, backed by Russian air support, could even begin from mid-October.
The bringing down of the Russian aircraft has created fresh uncertainties in the complex Syrian scenario. It had initially revealed a rare public divide between Mr Putin and his defence establishment: Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said that Israel bore “full responsibility” for the attack, while Mr Putin attempted to defuse the situation by saying it was caused by a “chain of tragic chance events”. The Russian military, however, firmly rejected a presentation by the Israeli air chief in Moscow blaming Syria for the loss, and saying that its aircraft had returned home when the Russian aircraft was hit.
Russia and Israel have worked closely in Syria over the last three years, with Russia quietly accepting at least 200 Israeli air attacks in the last 18 months. This cordial relationship is part of Russia’s interest to be close to all players in West Asia to enhance its influence by filling the vacuum left by an inert and directionless United States, and promote stability in the conflict-ridden region. Israel has also benefited from the relationship since Russia alone seems capable of restraining Iranian military activity in Syria.
By facilitating the attack on the Russian aircraft, Israel had perhaps wished to convey to Moscow that it retained the right to safeguard its security interests despite its ties with Russia. Now, though, Israel seems anxious to mend ties with Russia — its earlier aggressive public posturing has become more muted.
A week after the attack, Russia revealed its iron hand. On September 24, its defence spokesperson accused Israel of “criminal negligence” and “ungratefulness”. He recalled the various ways in which Russia had been accommodating Israel’s interests in Syria, most recently by ensuring that Iranian forces were kept 140 km from the Israeli border at Golan Heights during operations in southeast Syria.
He then announced that Syrian capabilities would be enhanced to deter future attacks with the S-300 missile systems that have been on the Syrian wishlist for five years. Again, Syrian defence units would now be able to electronically jam onboard radar communications and satellite navigation systems.
While this will restrict Israeli attacks in Syria, it is likely that Russia and Israel will soon be drawn together by their shared interests. There are even suggestions that the new military facilities in Syria will remain under Russian control.
Meanwhile, at Idlib, we can expect military action soon after Turkey’s President Erdogan has taken his “moderate” rebels to safety, when jihadis will engage in their final battle. Peace in Syria remains elusive.