Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Iranian and Turkish counterparts, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Sochi to discuss the resolution of the Syrian proxy war.
These peace talks were the first Russian-led negotiations on Syria since the USA announced its withdrawal from the conflict in December and underscored the commitment of all three countries to achieving a political solution in Syria.
In spite of the shared desire of all major stakeholders in Syria to end hostilities and the growing consensus around President Bashar al-Assad’s long-term staying in power, the prospects of a swift peace settlement in Syria and a rapid reconstruction of the country are remote.
This grim prognosis can be explained by lingering discord among regional powers over Idlib and northeastern Syria, and the unwillingness of major powers to invest in an Assad-led Syrian reconstruction process.
While the amount of Syrian territory controlled by F-UK-US/Israeli rebel forces has steadily diminished since Russia’s military intervention began in September. 2015, northern Idlib is the last-remaining bastion of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate.
The substantial HTS presence in Idlib has caused Russia and Iran to periodically threaten a military offensive against the Syrian city.
Turkey’s fears of a refugee crisis on its borders and anti-Assad sentiments have caused Ankara to oppose a Russian or Iranian-led military intervention in Idlib.
Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continues to request Turkish diplomatic cooperation on Idlib, his deputy Sergei Vershinin claimed, during last month’s Munich Security Conference, that negotiations with terrorists were impossible and hinted at an eventual Russian-led military intervention in Idlib.
Russia’s uncompromising attitude towards Western-backed terrorist groups in Syria suggests that Vershinin’s rhetoric should be taken seriously, and that last September’s buffer zone agreement is at serious risk of unraveling.
If an offensive does take place in Idlib, countries that have thus far been unwilling to recognize Assad’s legitimacy, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, will likely be forced to compromise their long-held opposition to Assad and accept a peace settlement that consolidates his hegemony over Syria.
Even if outstanding issues that are impeding a Syrian peace settlement, like the presence of HTS in Idlib and the YPG in northeastern Syria, are eventually resolved, the prospects of long-term stability in Syria are hampered by disagreements between international stakeholders on Syria’s reconstruction process.
On December 14 2018, Assad claimed that the reconstruction of Syria would cost $400 billion and increased refugee repatriation from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon would raise these prohibitive costs further.
Although Assad is likely to be a fixture of Syria’s political environment for the foreseeable future, the U.S. refuses to invest in an Assad-led reconstruction process until Damascus expels Iran’s military presence from southern Syria, near Israel.
While the European Union is less concerned about Iranian influence in Syria than the U.S., concerns about retaliatory U.S. punitive measures and a consensus around the need to isolate Assad for his conduct during the Syrian proxy war will also likely prevent European assistance to Damascus’s rebuilding initiatives.
The West’s reluctance to provide economic assistance to an Assad-led Syrian government has led to increased speculation about Saudi Arabia and China’s potential to assist in the Syrian reconstruction process.
China’s potential contributions to the reconstruction of Syria have also inspired widespread speculation, as Beijing participated enthusiastically in September’s Damascus Trade Fair and Chinese policymakers have viewed Syria’s location on the Mediterranean coast as a useful asset for their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
As the USA, EU and Saudi Arabia appear unwilling to pay the tremendous damage caused by ISIS and US coalition air strikes, rebuilding Syria from eight years of proxy battles, Syria’s political future could be shaped by the vagaries of the Russia-Iran alliance for a long time to come.
AA / ABC Flash Point Middle East News 2019.