Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu had negotiations with President of Syria Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on March 19. The Russian minister passed a message from Vladimir Putin to him. The Inforos news agency discussed the situation with Syrian political analyst Taleb Zaifa.
Inforos: In your opinion, what is the importance of the time chosen for the negotiations? What issues could have been discussed at the meeting?
Zaifa: The visit of Russia's minister of defense to Syria and his meeting with President al-Assad is extremely important amidst gross changes in the region. The Islamic State (banned in Russia) is ousted from Deir ez-Zor. Chief of the general staffs of Iran and Iraq visited Syria, and coherent work in the coordination center in Baghdad is underway. The Istanbul summit of the countries guaranteeing ceasefire in Syria that is scheduled for early April is in sight.
Meanwhile, President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan is incapable or reluctant to separate so-called opposition from terrorist organizations such as al-Nusra and other similar groups. Turkish Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar and Sergei Shoigu signed an agreement establishing a de-escalation zone. Turkey is passive as regards the creation of the demilitarized zone in Idlib in accordance with the Sochi treaty signed in September 2018.
Moreover, the defeat of the Islamic State is likely to be followed by new combats in northern and northeastern Syria. These districts are of no less importance for Damascus than Iblib. Oil and gas fields are situated there, and Syria is short of fuel and other products. This problem can be settled only through returning them to Damascus's control, either through negotiations or by force.
However, this requires tight coordination between Syria and its allies. This is where the extreme importance of Shoigu's visit to Damascus comes from.
Inforos: The Syrian president has recently visited Tehran, where he had talks with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani. Many media outlets, including in Russia, made a conclusion from this that there are differences between Moscow and Damascus, making the latter seek closer relations with the Iranians. In your opinion, is Sergei Shoigu's trip to Damascus linked to Bashar al-Assad's visit to Tehran in this light?
Zaifa: There are no principle disagreements in the strategy of Moscow, Damascus and Tehran. But there are regional and international forces that try to kindle minor disagreements. Of course, there is no absolute mutual understanding in relations between Russia, Syria and Iran; however, these countries see eye to eye on the most important issue, which is fight against terrorism.
Possibly, there is no absolute similarity of the positions because of the Idlib problem. Damascus needs to regain control over this district as soon as possible, but this doesn't happen because of Turkey, and this is what the Syrians are attracting attention of Tehran and Moscow to. Not all things go smoothly, but reports on alleged differences between the allies have nothing to do with the reality. Syria highly values Russia's position on fight against terrorism. Moscow has understood that the war in Syria is a threat to itself. So, our two countries are bonded by an old-new union that was concluded in the USSR era and revived in early 2000-s. The Syrian army is 90% armed with Russian weapons. The doors of Russian universities are open to Syrian citizens. Moreover, everyone can see that the war in Syria led to the strengthening of Russia and that it got new military bases in foreign countries. This arouses the West's dissatisfaction. It understands that it is the Syrian conflict that makes the sketches of the future world order in which the United States of America will cease to be a leading power, the sole power as it was after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Inforos: It has become apparent that the implementation of the Sochi agreements between Russia and Turkey to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib has been dragging on. In your opinion, how could they be implemented? Does Shoigu's visit to Damascus mean that Moscow is revising its approaches to the Idlib settlement and makes its position known to Damascus?
Zaifa: No doubt that the failed attempt of Turkey to invade northeastern Syria is Russia's achievement. President Putin reminded Erdogan that no one annulled the treaty of the inviolability of borders between Syria and Turkey that was signed in Adan in 1998. This is the first point. Secondly, the Aerospace Forces have started to occasionally deliver strikes on Idlib districts, as if reminding that Russia would not wait for Erdogan's fulfilling his obligations under the Sochi agreements for ages. If Turkey is unable to fulfill them, then Russia is capable to liberate this region itself. And what to do with fleeing terrorists who Ankara funded and provided supplies to? This will be the problem of Turkey itself, the EU and the USA. These states want to get information about foreign terrorists who were detained and expelled from Syria. Let them restore diplomatic relations with Damascus then.
I don't think that Erdogan will participate in a new military operation in Idlib. He can in no way help the Syrian and Russian armed forces. At the same time I think that the battle for this region will take place very soon.
Inforos: It seems that the USA has completely abandoned the idea of withdrawing its troops from Syria, specifically from the al-Tanf base at the intersection of the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi borders, as well as from regions eastwards the Euphrates River. Is it possible to say that Moscow is beginning active consultations with Damascus and is exploring joint steps to make the Americans finally leave the country?
Zaifa: As for the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria, it is dragged on by the USA's "state in the state" that fears stronger positions of Russia and Iran in the Mediterranean region. At the same time there is no objective point in the further presence of the American troops in Syria. The USA failed to cut communication between Iraq and Syria. The al-Qaim – Al-Bukemal strategic passage on the Syrian-Iraqi border is expected to be opened next month, which would facilitate communication between Syria, Iran and Iraq. This would play into hands of Russia, which demands that the USA withdraw its troops from the al-Tanf base and free refugees from the Rukban camp. This base and the camp are on the Damascus – Baghdad highway, the further blocking of which would become pointless. By the way, there is unconfirmed data that the Americans have started dialogue with Russian representatives regarding the withdrawal of their troops from northern Syria, although the reality proves the opposite.