Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Sochi, Russia, February 14, 2019

For the past month, the Assad regime’s military, supported by the Russian air force, has stepped up its shelling and bombing of opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria.

The attacks have been on cities and towns, such as Ma’arat an-Num’an and Khan Sheikhoun on or near the Aleppo-Damascus M5 highway. In response, the hardline Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has attacked regime positions and forces. These include a dawn raid on March 3 on checkpoints in northern Hama and Latakia Provinces which killed at least 29 troops and an Iranian national.

This is the most serious escalation of violence in northwest Syria since Turkey and Russia agreed a de-escalation zone in Idlib and northern Hama in September, and since HTS expanded its control of part of Idlib early this year.

Claims are circulating that Turkey threatened to withdraw from the Astana process, pursued with Russia and Iran since January 2017. Ankara may also allow the rebel National Liberation Front to join HTS in retaliation against regime forces.

Syria Daily, Feb 14: Russia Bombs Idlib City for 1st Time in Months, Killing 12

Astana Group Under Pressure

Signs point to growing dissension within the Astana group, which could lead to diplomatic blockages and increased tensions on the ground as Russia, Turkey, and Iran each look at preserving their individual interests in Syria and in the region.

Despite the de-escalation zone, Idlib is becoming a point of disagreement between Russia and Turkey, with Moscow demanding that Turkey take action against “terrorists”. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwait News Agency:

Certain hotbeds of terrorist presence remain in the country. First of all, this concerns the Idlib de-escalation zone, where most territory is controlled by militants from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group carrying out provocative raids against civilians and the Russian and Syrian militaries.

Against this background, it is necessary to continue efficiently fighting against terrorism. We encourage our Turkish partners to meet their commitments under the September 17, 2018 memorandum on stabilizing the situation in Idlib.

The recent HTS attacks are bolstering Moscow’s position that Ankara has not, and will not, be able to enforce the de-escalation agreement with the “removal” of “radical” groups. Meanwhile, Turkey is blaming the Assad regime for hindering its efforts to stabilize the situation. A regime offensive against the last major opposition-held area — an operation supported by Iran all along — seems to be only a question of time, probably leading to massive population movements towards the Turkish border.

Russia and Turkey are also squabbling over the “safe zone” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to impose on Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border, both east and west of the Euphrates River. At the last Astana Group meeting on February 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to endorse the zone and renewing his support to a Syria fully under control of Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow has pointed to the 1998 Adana Agreement, signed by Syria and Turkey to deal with Ankara’s concerns over Kurdish fighters on the border. This has been seen as Russia’s acceptance of a buffer area without the Kurdish militia YPG, considered by Ankara to be “terrorists” linked with the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK. But Moscow is insisting that Damascus should be involved in discussions and implementation, mainly through control of border points — a demand that Ankara has rejected.

Signs point to growing dissension within the Astana group, which could lead to diplomatic blockages and increased tensions on the ground as Russia, Turkey, and Iran each look at preserving their individual interests in Syria and in… Click To Tweet

Russia-Iran Tensions Grow

Russian and Iranian interests may also diverge. Following their meeting at the Kremlin two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Putin “showed an understanding of Israel’s security needs” over Iran’s presence in Syria.

Netanyahu went beyond long-standing Russian assurances on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in southwest Syria, preventing the move of Iranian and Hezbollah forces into the area. There was discussion of Tehran’s entrenchment, with the Israeli Prime Minister reiterating his line that “the complete withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria, is a common declared goal” of both Israel and Russia.

Russian media, citing a senior Israeli security official, said, “It was decided to create a group with the participation of Russia, Israel and several other countries, which will work on the issue of the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria”. Unnamed diplomatic sources said Putin did not place limitations on Israel’s actions in Syria, days before the Israel Defense Forces shelled claimed Hezbollah positions in Quneitra Province in the southwest.

The Netanyahu-Putin meeting came two days after Assad made a visit to Tehran, where he was received by the Supreme Leader and President Hassan Rouhani. The two sides reaffirmed their strong ties. More importantly, Iran — despite economic problems and US sanctions — has increased its lines of funding for Syria and is pursuing projects such as road and rail construction with routes through Iraq.

A Breaking Point?

It remains to be seen how the Assad regime will maneuver between the interests of Russia and Iran and manage the Turkish threat. For now, Assad is benefiting from the tensions, re-asserting the regime’s supposed control of the south, preparing an offensive against Idlib, looking for negotiations with the Kurds, and seeking a “reconstruction” which will benefit his immediate circle.

Perhaps more importantly, it remains to be seen how the three Astana powers will maneuver with each other. Iran may have to react at some point to Israeli military operations against its allies, potentially leading to a direct confrontation on Syrian territory. This would foil Russian plans for the regime’s proclaimed restoration of control and pose the question for Moscow of supporting its Iranian partner or breaking from Tehran for the sake of “deconfliction” agreements with Israel.

In this new phase of the Syrian conflict, the Astana process is gone. Russia, Turkey, Iran — each must recalibrate their plans and actions, both alongside and possibly against each other.

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