Islamic State has been reduced to its final strongholds in Syria, but a clear end game for the country’s wider conflict remains uncertain.
With the US focused overwhelmingly on the battle for Raqqa, the initiative for the rest of Syria has been seized by a seemingly unlikely trio: regime backers Russia and Iran alongside erstwhile Assad opponent Turkey.
With the next round of international talks in Astana, Kazakhstan underway this week, there has been growing common ground between Russia and Turkey, who have proposed an ambitious plan for the northern rebel enclave of Idlib province.
Since December, Russia has made use of so-called 'military police', drawn from its Sunni Muslim territories of Chechnya and Ingushetia
Moscow and Ankara initially agreed to four "de-escalation zones", covering the major fronts of rebel-regime conflict in Syria, following an earlier round of talks in Astana in early May.
Now they are moving closer to establishing ground forces to safeguard these areas.
Recent Russian-Turkish discussions have focused upon Idlib, the largest and, until now, most contentious of the four zones. The two countries announced on 22 June that they plan to send Russian and Turkish military personnel to enforce its sanctity.
This has provoked severe consternation from both Syrian Kurds in the northwestern Afrin canton, who fear a direct Turkish military operation against them; and the al-Qaeda-aligned Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, another likely opponent of Ankara’s forces.
No concrete indication has emerged as to the target for the Turkish buildup, but the military groundwork is in place for a potential Idlib deployment.
Enter Russian military police
Russia’s ground forces deployed to the area would likely take a different form to regular army units.
Since December, Russia has made use of so-called "military police", drawn from its Sunni Muslim territories of Chechnya and Ingushetia.
These units, which have received elite counter-terrorism training, have been deployed surgically to ensure the completion of sensitive missions across Syria, including supervising evacuations in Aleppo and preventing Turkish-Kurdish clashes in Manbij.
Moscow has so far been pleased with the performance of these military police, according to Russian daily Kommersant. Russian officials have recently suggested greater numbers could be sent to secure Idlib.
A unit of 250 Chechen military police recently completed their three-month rotation in Syria and returned home, soon to be replaced with another unit.
The timing is auspicious for a fresh battalion (or even several) of Chechen spetsnaz to acquaint themselves with Idlib province.
Central Asian involvement
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Russian-Turkish negotiations was the suggestion that the Idlib zone could be safeguarded by peacekeeping troops from two unlikely sources: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Several thousand citizens from the former Soviet Central Asia have travelled to fight with extremist groups in Syria
A pair of announcements on 22 June raised this possibility. The first was from the Russian side. Then Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin expanded on these remarks by citing a possible figure of “300 or 500 soldiers” from the Central Asian republics.
These suggestions were almost immediately denied by Astana and Bishkek, with Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdurakhmanov stating that there were “no kind of negotiations” on the proposal.
Kyrgyzstan’s remarks left more room for interpretation: Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev denied that he had discussed a deployment in his 20 June meeting with Putin, but State Security Council head Temur Jumakadyrov mentioned that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance including Russia, Belarus, and the five countries of post-Soviet Central Asia, had recently talked about the de-escalation zones.
Reactions from local activists were also deeply negative, with one well-known Kyrgyz commentator stating that involvement in Syria could end in civil war in Kyrgyzstan. Adil Turdukulov, the Kyrgyz activist in question, raised fears that Bishkek’s participation in Syria could lead to Kyrgyz troops fighting Kyrgyz jihadists in a development that could spill over into the Central Asian country itself.
For its part, Moscow clarified that “no one is being forced” to send troops, and that talks were ongoing under the framework of the CSTO.
The recent rapprochement between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed unthinkable after Turkey downed a Russian jet in Syria in November 2015.
Russia’s intervention in support of Assad showed Turkey that its primary aim of overthrowing the Syrian president was now unrealistic
The turnaround has come as Turkey reworks its foreign policy priorities during the past 18 months.
Russia’s intervention in support of Assad showed Turkey that its primary aim of overthrowing the Syrian president was now unrealistic.
Since then, Ankara has worked at what it views as a more existential problem: undermining the nascent Syrian Kurdish state aligned with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) on its southern border.
Erdogan and the Turkish elite believe they cannot trust the United States to aid them in this goal. The US backing for Syrian Kurds has been interpreted by Ankara as negligence of Turkish concerns at best and actively antagonistic at worst.
Turkey and Russia would also like to see the Syrian conflict largely resolved. The former is still carrying a massive refugee burden, while the latter is unwilling to support open-ended regime offensives for outlying territory that mean nothing to Moscow’s interests.
Factors to watch
This week's round of talks in Astana is crucial to further Russian-Turkish cooperation on all these issues, including further details on plans for peacekeepers in Idlib.
Russian military sources suggested that Russia could seek to draw in additional CSTO countries to send peacekeepers to Syria, probably from other Central Asian members including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Kurdish sources have suggested that Russia is withdrawing its small military presence in Afrin to give Turkey a free hand in exchange for Idlib cooperation
Several thousand citizens from the former Soviet Central Asia have travelled to fight with extremist groups in Syria. It’s possible that their home states could seek to eliminate them on the battlefield and prevent them returning home, as France and the UK are doing in Iraq.
Another crucial question is the rumoured Turkish offensives on Syrian Kurdish territories in northern Syria.
Russia green light to Turkey?
Kurdish sources have suggested that Russia is withdrawing its small military presence in Afrin to give Turkey a free hand in exchange for Idlib cooperation.
While this remains disputed, with some sources in Afrin claiming the Russians will remain, Turkish experts continue to posit that Moscow will give a green light to any operation by Ankara against the Syrian Kurdish canton.
Moscow has also been working hard to secure US and Jordanian agreement on the de-escalation zone in southern Syria, and has made significant headway with Amman.
There still exist many potential obstacles for Moscow’s best-laid plans: recent US-Iranian clashes in southeast Syria and fighting between regime and Kurdish forces serve as a reminder that the Kremlin has had difficulties restraining its allies.
It also remains unclear what exactly will happen in Idlib itself, or to the tens of thousands of rebel fighters based there.
Nevertheless, Moscow, with Turkish support, appears to have seized the initiative on determining Syria’s immediate future.
While Washington seemingly flounders with its Syria strategy, Russia is forging ahead with its newfound Nato ally to establish its own vision of a resolution for some of Syria’s most deeply rooted conflict zones.
- Neil Hauer is a senior intelligence analyst at The SecDev Group in Ottawa, Canada. A former Russia resident, Neil holds a master’s degree in Russian and Eurasian Studies and has appeared in outlets including the BBC, CTV, and Foreign Policy. He focuses on Russian activity in Syria and violent conflict in the Caucasus.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (L) and Russia Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (R) at the summit of Organisation of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) on 22 May 2017 in Istanbul.