online 30.12.16

talking politics

The fate of Syria will be decided in Astana

by Yacov Ben Efrat

On Friday, a "diplomatic assault" occurred when the United States abstained rather than veto a UN Security Council Resolution on the Israel/Palestine question. This resolution says that settlement activity constitutes a "flagrant violation" of international law and has "no legal validity." Netanyahu was quick to accuse Obama of coordinating moves with the Palestinians. He slammed the Security Council, charging hypocrisy in light of the UN’s utter helplessness to end the genocide in Syria and South Sudan. Netanyahu is right. The settlement enterprise and the Israeli occupation are overshadowed by the terrible events perpetrated in Syria by Assad, Iran and Russia. But Netanyahu’s hypocrisy was exposed. In the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot (December 27, 2016), Ronen Bergman reported that Israel was absent from the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution calling for the establishment of an international mechanism for collecting evidence of war crimes in Syria. It was Netanyahu who gave the order to skip the vote despite the recommendation of the Israel Foreign Ministry to favor it, saying it was a moral issue of the first order.

According to Barak Ravid’s report in Haaretz (December 28, 2016), Netanyahu was reacting to "heavy” Russian pressure. It turns out that while Obama has become his Enemy Number One, Putin has become a first-class ally. So much so that Israel finds itself on the same side with countries that fear the International Court of Justice in The Hague, such as Libya, Eritrea and Rwanda, which were also absent from the vote. One of the reasons used to justify Israel’s absence is the necessity to uphold good relations with Russia. Israel must maintain military coordination with Russia so that its jets can continue preventing the transfer of weapons from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But anyone watching events in Syria understands that there is a more important and strategic reason: These days, Syria's future is being determined by the three countries involved in the war there—Turkey, Iran and Russia; Israel has a special interest in the negotiations that are now going on among them.

Last Tuesday (Dec. 20, 2016), the foreign and defense ministers of the three signatories of the “Aleppo Agreement” gathered in Moscow to end the Syrian conflict. While Aleppo was being emptied of its inhabitants, those who perpetrated the appalling crimes there convened to draw up an agreement that would satisfy their strategic interests. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced the "Moscow Declaration," in which the three partners call for a ceasefire and a peace conference to be convened in mid-January in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The Russians, along with the Turks and the Iranians, have decided to sideline the US and UN, moving the talks from Geneva to Central Asia. Syria ceases to be in the Arab circle and becomes instead a Russian/Iranian/Turkish protectorate. Assad's regime is now just one side of the coin, and currently the three partners are working on the composition of the opposition delegation, which will negotiate an agreement with the Assad government.

While preserving the regime has become a consensus among the three partners, the dispute now focuses on the identity of the “opposition." For the past six years, many opposition groups have arisen, each belonging, in one form or another, to countries using them as surrogates in the Syrian civil war. For example, there’s the opposition that is aligned with Assad that sees him as the legitimate president. And there’s another opposition group formed in Riyadh (with the consent of the United States) that took part in the last Geneva conference. Alongside these “political” oppositions, there are various warring militias, mostly of jihadist character. They are called terrorists by the Russians and have been the main target of the Russian aerial strikes in Aleppo. The Russians, in coordination with the Turks, are now working to legitimize organizations such as "Ahrar al-Sham" and “Jaysh al-Islam", which are a coalition of multiple Islamist and Salafist units that until today were labeled terrorists. Iran continues to veto their participation and refuses to include Saudi Arabia at the conference in Astana.

It turns out that these jihadi militias have pushed the Free Syrian Army to the sidelines, forcibly subduing the democratic forces that sparked the revolution against Assad and led it for the last two years. The jihadi groups have now become legitimate partners, negotiating with Russian military officials in Ankara about the terms of the cease-fire throughout Syria. Backed by the Turkish military, they abandoned Aleppo to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS); their aim has been to prevent the Kurds, who are supported by the US, from establishing an autonomous region along the Turkish-Syrian border. So, while Russian planes pounded Aleppo to smithereens, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, these militias negotiated with Russian military representatives on the agreement for Aleppo's surrender. The Russians call this agreement a "humanitarian gesture," intended to save the civilian population. Now that Aleppo has surrendered, Russia is rushing into an agreement that will save it from further entanglement in Syria. It realizes that the fall of Aleppo will not suffice to stabilize Assad’s rule over the country as a whole. Eastern Syria remains in the control of ISIS, while large swathes of land around the southern outskirts of Damascus and the Syrian Golan Heights are in the hands of the rebels, supported by the US and Jordan.

Although Russian air superiority saved the Assad regime, the Iran-backed Shiite militias, led by Hezbollah, did the dirty work by imposing a military siege on the ground and massacring the inhabitants. Therefore the Russians must take Iran’s interests into account. While the Russians want an arrangement that will keep them in control of the port at Tartus and the Latakia airport for years to come, the Iranians want to take command over all of Syria while maintaining their dominance in Iraq and Lebanon. Jihadi militias, funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, constitute an obstacle to Iranian aspirations. Hence the Astana Conference faces great difficulties. Russia wants to see a "balanced" Syria, in which the Assad regime reaches an understanding with legitimate "moderate" militias that are ready to compromise; in exchange these militias would receive autonomy in peripheral areas outside the so-called “useful Syria” that comprises the main cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, cities that have been ethnically cleansed of their hostile Sunni populations by the Shia militias.

This is where Netanyahu’s interests converge with those of his newfound friends, Putin and Erdogan. Israel’s prime interest is to keep Syria from falling into Iranian hands. Although not directly engaged in what is happening in Ankara (as are the Gulf countries, the US and Europe), Israel has strategic interests in Syria. Assad's regime, supported by Iran, is ready to extend the bloody war to the last Syrian. Military blockades and ethnic cleansing have proven themselves in Aleppo. For the Syrian regime there is no reason to soften these harsh measures. But the geopolitical interests of Russia, Turkey and Israel differ from Iranian interests. Iran would like to continue its expansion into the heart of the Arab world. Hence, the war in Syria is far from over. In the not too distant future, Putin will see that the Assad regime is hardly an asset, because the responsibility for the massacres will continue to land on him, and he will continue to be seen as defying the international community. Assad is an enormous burden preventing any political settlement. The tragedy of Syria will weigh upon the Russians for many years to come.