FILE PHOTO - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/ via REUTERS/File Photo FILE PHOTO - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/ via REUTERS/File Photo

Syria in the aftermath of militants defeat

Wed, Sep. 12, 2018
CAIRO – 12 September 2018: The world is staying alert for a massive strike against militant groups in Idlib by Syrian and Russian forces. Simultaneously, the United States has been leading a campaign warning against the use of chemical weapons and threatening with a retaliatory military action in collaboration with

France

and the United Kingdom.

As a consequence, the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Rybakov criticized the U.S. stance on Syria during the first UN meeting on Space Law and Policy, saying it is in favor of terrorist groups. He described the statements by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton as reflecting of a “blackmailing” policy.

White Helmets

Russia has been warning that a false flag chemical weapon attack was being prepared in Idlib to give the US and its allies justification to attack Syrian government forces. The Russian Centre for Syrian Reconciliation released a statement saying it was informed by local residents in Jisr al-Shughur that footage is being staged featuring White Helmets operatives treating fake victims of a chemical bomb attack by Syrian government forces. The statement mentioned that an Islamist group was provided with two canisters of a “chlorine-based chemical” for that purpose, according to Russia Today.

Summit
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey attend a news conference following their meeting in Tehran, Iran September 7, 2018. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool via REUTERS

The summit held in Istanbul encompassing the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey has not resulted in any clear accords. The plan is that a large-scope strike will target 60,000 militants in Idlib. Only 10,000 of those are affiliated with al-Qaeda branch Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - formerly known as Al-Nusra Front - that controls 60 percent of Idlib, while the rest are affiliated with Turkey-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL).

Turkey
Turkish soldiers near Turkey’s border with Syria’s Idlib. Photo: Ilyas Akengin / AFP

Therefore, Turkey has been negotiating excluding NFL targets from the attack. That group encompasses jihadists affiliated to the Free Syrian Army. On the other hand, Russia rejected any truces with militants in the governorate. The United Nations revealed that 30,000 individuals out of Idlib’s 3.5 million-population fled mostly to areas near Turkish borders.

Although Turkey classified HTS as a terrorist organization in consistency with the United Nations and the U.S. proscription, it has set 12 observation posts along Idlib’s frontline in HTS-held territories.

Idlib
FILE PHOTO - People inspect the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

As the governmental forces backed by Russia and Iran-affiliated militias seized control over Western Euphrates, it is likely a matter of time before Syrian army restores authority over Idlib. Professor of International Relations at Cairo University Mohamed Hussein says that “Russia will definitely eliminate militants in Syria.”

As Eastern Euphrates territories -

having U.S. military installations

- are controlled by U.S. backed Social Democratic Forces (SDF) whose members are mostly from the Kurdish YPG forces, Hussein speculates that Syria will not be unified any time soon since territories surrounding the river are designated as de-escalation zones where no military strikes will be launched by either the U.S. or Russia.

On the other hand, existing powers Eastern Euphrates will be opting for different goals after battles are over.

Reconstruction

Russian Affairs Expert Mohamed Aboul Nour describes potential conflict between Russia and Iran over Syria’s reconstruction as “dreams” because the cost to accomplish that is estimated at $400 billion. Russia can barely secure the quarter of that amount as it is struggling due to sanctions, while the capabilities of Iran are far behind Russia being itself in need of assistance. He estimates that Russia will focus on restoring oil facilities in specific.

Meanwhile, Syria signed with Iran in August a new security agreement so as the former would help the latter rebuild its military and defense industries.

Aleppo
People stand near near rubble of damaged buildings in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo countryside, Syria December 25, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

The expert says that despite Turkey’s huge constructions abilities, it will not be welcomed in Syria as it wants to control Idlib and Hama. He adds that one of the advantages Turkey got out of Syrian civil war is “dismantling and stealing” 2,000 factories from Aleppo that used to be Syria’s industrial centre.

Aboul Nour says that Europe will be involved in rehabilitation faster than the United States but will still exert pressure to attain certain strategic goals. That is because the continent has to reduce migration flows of unskilled labor and risk of terrorists' infiltration.

Russia, Iran and Israel

Aboul Nour says that Israel opened its borders for Syrian militants, giving them refuge and treating them in its hospitals where Netanyahu himself paid them a visit. Foreign Policy magazine reported last week that Israel armed and funded 12 Syrian militant groups to help undermine the presence of Iran-backed militias and the IS.

During his visit to Jerusalem in August, Bolton stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country cannot push Iranian forces out of Syria, although it looks forward to that. Many experts estimate that accomplishing such goal is impossible even with U.S. and Russia’s support.

Russia’s Syria negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev said in an interview in July that Moscow convinced the Iranian forces in Syria to withdraw to at least 85 kilometers from Golan Heights occupied by Israel.

Golan_heights_rel89-orig
CIA map of Golan Heights and vicinity, October 1994 - Wikimedia Commons

Russia needs Iran-backed militias to fight guerilla groups in Syria, while Israel coordinates with it before attacking Iranian targets.

Russia has been preparing an agreement whereas Iranian forces and affiliate militias retreat from Southern Syria where they are more connected with their arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah, while Damascus will restore control over the Golan Heights frontier and Israel will recognize the authority of Bashar al-Assad over the rest of Syria. Russia deployed in that frontier its military police and plans to set up eight observation posts.

Aboul Nour clarifies that Russia is not “comfortable” with the Iranian presence in Syria but it appreciates its role in defeating militants. On the other hand, Russia is not interested in protecting that presence and in Iranian “hallucinations” of eliminating Israel. He adds that Russia will not benefit from Iranian infiltration into Golan Heights either.

There were clashes between the Syrian army and Shiite militias Eastern Syria near the Iraqi borders as Iran is trying to create a land bridge to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. That area was the target of an airstrike two months ago. Some media reports revealed that Israel stands behind it.

Researcher at the Arab Forum for Analyzing Iranian Policies (AFAIP) Nesrine Mostafa says that Syrian President Assad realizes that abolishing Iranian presence in Syria is not easy. Although Assad denies the existence of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) troops, insisting he just resorts to Iranian military advisors, Iran had announced that 2,100 Iranian soldiers were killed in Syria and Iraq over the past seven years.

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said that “Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iranian forces in Syria are far from reality” and that the Syrian government has the right to respond to any aggression. He added that Syria's allies are ready to help, accusing Israel of spreading unrest in Iran to jeopardize the Iranian economy.

Israel expressed concerns that Iran-backed militias will not leave Syria and that may compose a threat to its security, justifying undertaking airstrikes on Iranian military installations in the country. That is why the United States and Russia are trying to keep Iranian forces away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israel struck Iranian targets in Syria over 150 times in the last few years, including seventy Iranian positions last May. The targets were intelligence installations, rocket depots, army bases, and logistic warehouses. In July 2018, Israel fired patriot missiles at an Iranian-made drone over Golan Heights. In February, a missile by Syrian forces had mistaken an Israeli drone over Golan Heights causing damage to a house.

Mostafa says that Israeli attacks will not undermine the Iranian presence in Syria, speculating, however, that Iran will refrain from provoking Israel for its inability to launch retaliatory attacks, and for not worsening its critical economic status.

Russia, Turkey, and the Coalition

Aboul Nour explains that Hezbollah protected Damascus from falling, and that Russia intervened in 2015 for two main reasons. One is gaining power in the region, and the other is the fear that extremism may extend to Muslim-majority countries around it as Syria is quite close to its southern borders.

Hmeimim
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria in this handout picture posted on SANA on June 27, 2017, Syria. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Since then Russia has established for itself a permanent presence by operating Hmeimim airbase, and Tartus naval base.

Aboul Nour highlights that Turkey’s intentions regarding Syria unveiled when it shot down the Russian aircraft near its borders in 2015 as it was involved in exporting oil on behalf of the Islamic state. Meanwhile, Russia bombed oil facilities weakening Nusra Front (now HTS) and the Islamic State (IS).

Afrin
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter walks as he holds his weapon near the city of Afrin, Syria February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

The expert asserts that was more effective than the coalition's airstrikes “focusing on controlling the air and the land rather than fighting IS” and “mistakenly throwing aid at the group’s locations.”
 
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