Idlib exposes deep fissures among the stakeholders in Syria's future

As the civil war continues into its 10th year, even those in agreement over the Astana Process distrust each other

epa08130683 Firefighters try to extinguish flames at the site of airstrike targeting the center in the industrial area in the east of Idlib, Syria, 15 January 2020. According to media reports, at least 15 people were killed after the Syrian government resumed airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Idlib despite a ceasefire supposedly into effect since 12 January agreed between Russia and Turkey.  EPA/YAHYA NEMAH
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These days the stakeholders in the Syrian peace process, also known as the Astana Process, are finding themselves in a state of mutual distrust and regional competition.

As the Syrian civil war continues into its 10th year, President Bashar Al Assad remains vital for Russian diplomacy, with his regime key to legitimising its presence in Syria. From the Russian viewpoint, Moscow’s military and strategic deployment in the country five years ago came at the invitation of Damascus – unlike, say, the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. But there is no doubt that Russia’s military achievements in Syria, which form the basis of the restoration of its prestige, have also provided it near-permanent strategic bases in the Mediterranean.

Yet President Vladimir Putin cannot be absolutely at ease; after all, there is always the possibility of Syria turning into a quagmire for the Russians, who do not trust US intentions – or even those of their partners, Iran and Turkey. Indeed, Russia's relationship with Turkey was never one of trust anyway. It has always been marred by doubts about the latter's intentions, integrity and ambitions. As a result, clashes that broke out between both players in Syria earlier this week were to be expected.

However, the worst could be yet to come because – despite their co-operation in Syria – Mr Putin's project is diametrically opposed to that of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For his part, Mr Putin considers Syrian rebels, including those backed by Mr Erdogan, to be part of a terrorist nexus that threatens Russian ambitions. But Russia does not want to clash with Turkey either, given the continued need for its co-operation in other matters, including the conflict in Libya, where they are backing opposing parties. For this reason, it is likely that the two sides could still strike deals – in Syria and other parts of the region.

From left, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin after posing for a photo in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Ankara to discuss the situation in Syria, with the aim of halting fighting in the northwestern Idlib province and finding a lasting political solution to the country's civil war, now in its ninth year. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, Pool)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin after posing for a photo in Ankara. AP Photo

Moscow is more accommodating of Iran. It perceives Tehran as a junior partner, albeit a problematic one, due in large part to its relationship with Israel. The latter struck Iranian positions near Damascus – in the first such attack of its kind since the US assassination of Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad last month – thereby indicating that it intends to resume containment of Tehran's ambitions in Syria.

Iran, meanwhile, is paying heed to recent developments in Washington. It had bet on the impeachment of US President Donald Trump – as well as on the Democrats’ return to the White House next year. But it is now less likely that the hardliners in Tehran will prevail over the moderates who have sought to be more accommodating towards the Americans.

Under pressure at home and abroad while faced with an economic crisis, Tehran has chosen to de-escalate tensions in the region for now. It has reined in its partners in various theatres of influence, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the various militia groups in Iraq – thanks to popular unrest against its projects in both countries.

Sources close to Tehran, however, say that the leadership sees the current state of affairs in Lebanon as favourable to its interests following the formation of a Hezbollah-backed government in Beirut. And despite the economic crisis in Iran, the regime intends to give Hezbollah a cash injection while reinforcing its support. The same sources state that Iran is doing this despite having been forced to divert funds from its proxy war Yemen.

President Donald Trump arrives at the White House, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, in Washington, as he returns from a trip to Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The possible re-election of US President Donald Trump weighs on the minds of those who are in power in Tehran. AP Photo

The Iranian leadership is trying to forecast Mr Trump’s next move following his acquittal by the US Senate, given that it no longer hopes for a European rescue operation that could help it evade sanctions. This, even as it continues to publicly give Europe “the last chance” to act before withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal and, perhaps, even the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Troubled by the prospect of Mr Trump’s re-election, Iran’s options now are to either escalate tensions – which will come at too great a cost for it – or negotiate a new agreement with the US that would include curbs on its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, as well as on its incursions in Arab countries.

Circling back to Syria, Tehran is also facing difficulties in its partnership with Russia. There is coherence as far as their alliance on the ground and their support for the Assam regime are concerned. According to Russian sources, Moscow values its relationship with Tehran and considers it an essential partner in the fight against terror, as Russia defines it. It also believes defeating ISIS and the Nusra Front in Syria can be partially credited to Iran and Hezbollah.

However, there are disagreements between the two countries in the context of their relations with Israel, as well as divergences between their projects in Syria. The trajectory of the developing relations between Russia and Gulf countries, as well as Egypt, also worries Iran. Russia is not keen on the Iranian Crescent project in the region – a point of convergence with US and Israeli interests.

Speaking of US-Russia competition, Moscow has consistently raised doubts about a complete US pull-out of its troops from Syria. It believes that “continued US presence hinders the progress of normalising the situation in Syria”, according to a source familiar with Russian policy. Therefore, “the possibility of an agreement with the Americans is low to non-existent – although a clash between Russia and the US in Syria is out of the question”.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute