After the meeting of last April, Iranian President Rouhani, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met again in Teheran (and in Tabriz) on September 6-7, within the now usual setting of the Astana talks.
The specific aim of these last negotiations was to normalize the Syrian situation in the long term, as well as to further promote the eradication of international terrorism and the stabilization of the infra-Syrian political process and finally to create the necessary conditions for a return of Syrian displaced people and refugees abroad.
There are now innumerable peace meetings for war in Syria, which has been going on for about seven years.
In this case everything stems from the foreseeable failure of the “six-point peace plan for Syria” proposed by Kofi Annan in 2012, with the authorization of the Arab League and the United Nations.
The first point of the peace plan proposed by Annan envisaged the commitment “to work for an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people” – and here I confine myself to quoting the text, whatever it may mean.
Secondly Annan called for the commitment “to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective UN supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilise the country”. And what if sometimes weapons were needed to defend civilians?
At that juncture, the former UN Secretary-General asked the Syrian government to “immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.” What about light weapons? Another ambiguous sentence. In Annan’s six-point peace plan, however, no mention was made of the rebels’ military operations, i.e. the huge amount of at least 56 groups, including the openly or not overtly jihadist groups that even today form the large-mesh net of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.
However, the UN Envoy who drafted the “six-point peace plan” should have sought, above all, the agreement of the “opposition” – hence of jihadists, Kurds and Isis at the same time, as well as the other “holy war” groups connected directly to the Caliphate.
Nevertheless, obviously we do not know how he could have achieved an “effective cessation of armed violence”. What should he have given in return? With which operating limits? Mystery of abstract idealism also in the very concrete field of foreign policy.
The third point of Annan’s peace plan asked to “ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by fighting”. However, how could these areas be reached? Possibly unarmed as little angels?
The fourth point urged “to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons”. Once again we cannot understand how the safe return of detained persons (1,3 million people) and displaced ones (currently 6.1 million people) can be ensured without weapons.
The fifth point urged “to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists” – journalists, who are often agents in disguise.
Finally the six point called for “respecting freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed”.
This plan – better suited to Presbyterian Churches rather than to those who have read the classics of politics – was at the basis of the UN resolutions calling for very harsh sanctions against the Syrian regime – obviously only against the Syrian regime – in the period between 2011 and 2012. Idealistic sanctions that were reasonably and rightly blocked by Russia and China in the Security Council.
At that juncture, in April 2012, Kofi Annan definitively stepped down as UN-Arab-League mediator and the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) was dismantled.
Furthermore, after Annan’s failure, Obama’s Administration stated that Assad could not “reasonably” remain President of Syria.
Hence was Daesh-Isis a better option? We will never know. We know all too well, however, to what extent Saudi Arabia and other Sunni and non-Sunni countries supported Al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate. At that time, Putin spoke about 14 countries that used the services of the old Isis but, for example, the then spokesman of the Caliphate, Al-Adnani, revealed in a speech of May 2014 that their “forces and Al Qaeda’s forces had been ordered not to attack the lines of communication between Iran and the Lebanon”. Not to mention the large body of evidence demonstrating the vast infiltration of Assad’ Syrian forces into the Caliphate’s jihad and the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari operations within the wide range of jihadist organizations opposing Assad.
At that juncture, both Syria and other international actors, including some jihadist resistance groups, participated in the Geneva Talks, but failed to form a transitional government with all the warring parties, which was precisely the goal of the Geneva Talks.
Hence in January 2014 the so-called Geneva II phase started, with the aim of creating the conditions for new more effective talks – and nothing else.
Nevertheless, neither the Kurds nor the various jihad groups participated in Geneva II. Not even Assad participated directly, given Obama’s warning on his staying in power.
At that point, the ISIS operations between Iraq and Syria began and, at the same time, the United States created a “global” coalition of 79 States to hit the Caliphate, in particular.
The rest of the story is well-known: the Russian Federation intervened directly in the Syrian war. Hence, in November 2015, the International Syria Support Group with twenty States and international organisations, including Iran, was established within the UN framework, with a view to drawing up a draft agreement to be submitted to the future Vienna Conference.
Here Churchill’s memorable witty remark springs to our mind: “Ambassadors should be silent in at least six different languages”.
The final proposal of the Group was included in UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254, with a “Road Map for the Peace Process in Syria and the definition of a Timetable for further Talks”.
Resolution No. 2254 envisaged a maximum period of six months for negotiations between the Ba’athist government and the opposition – without further details and specifications on the latter – hence indirectly accepting at the negotiating table the Caliphate that as many as 79 nations should fight together with the United States. It also envisaged further political elections (with which parties or lists?) within that six-month period.
In December 2015 Saudi Arabia offered to organize a High Negotiations Committee (HNC) by its own, with most of the jihadist groups operating at the time in Syria and also in Russia, as well as with the major countries of the region.
The HNC included 33 members from the following political and military opposition organizations: 9 members of the “National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces”; other members of the Kurdish National Council, who withdrew after a short lapse of time; 5 members of the “National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change”; a bunch of 13 Syrian left parties, with others that later disappeared thanks to Assad’s intelligence services and after an eventful meeting in China.
The HNC also declared that it wanted “religious and political pluralism” and, for that reason, was often hosted by the British government.
In that case the primary issue was the Syrian Kurds, who were excluded from negotiations thanks to Turkish pressure alone.
Later even Geneva III began, which immediately failed due to the Russian and Iranian military initiatives on the Syrian territory.
Finally, a new Geneva IV phase started, which hosted other talks between Bashar el Assad’s government and the aforementioned High Negotiations Committee. Nevertheless, also the Astana Talks began – an indirect series of Talks between the Syrian Ba’athist regime and Russia and later Iran and Turkey, which were anyway sponsors of the negotiations. With a range of jihadists, who participated in the talks held in Kazakhstan with unusual attention.
In the first meeting held in the capital of Kazakhstan, the Head of the HNC of the time – who was the leader of the jihadist group Jaish al-Islam – defined the Syrian government as a “terrorist entity”.
Although characterized by unimaginable offenses and insults, the Astana talks managed to reach a truce between the fighting parties.
In fact, in late October 2017, four de-escalation zones were established between the States and the Syrian jihad.
They included the city of Idlib and the surrounding countryside, in addition to the provinces of Latakia and Aleppo; the Northern Homs countryside; Eastern Ghouta and parts of Deraa and Quneitra. Almost all areas which, apart from Idlib, have already been currently conquered by the Syrian government on a permanent basis.
Hence they were zones defined by agreements – especially bilateral agreements – between Russia and the jihadist groups operating in the region.
In fact, Russia signed an agreement with the so-called “Southern Front”, so as to keep Iran out of Deraa, while Russia replaced the militia of the allied countries with its Chechen and Dagestan police.
Russia also reached a specific agreement with the jihadist group Jaish al-Tawhid, directly in Cairo – an agreement that is known to be very costly for the Russian State budget.
Meanwhile, Iran was working to strengthen its connection and communication line between Tehran, the Iraqi Shiite military areas and, finally, the Lebanon.
It is Iran’s primary project in Syria – the idea of finally closing Israel strategically, which would currently find a far more solid defence than the Syrian one in the Golan Heights and on the border of the Litani River with the Lebanon.
Therefore only Russia is currently playing its role as great broker and mediator for the whole Syria, after having de facto won on the ground.
Hence what results have the three governments reached at the last meeting in Tehran, which is, however, part and parcel of the “Astana process”?
Iran has recorded the undoubted success of being part of the winning coalition, in Syria, together with Turkey and Russia – a highly useful relationship, just when the United States and Saudi Arabia are doing their utmost to marginalize Iran on the international scene.
The Islamic Republic of Iran wants to be part of the great and rich reconstruction program for Syria, thus ensuring its presence on the ground.
In fact, there had been various and contradictory news about the upcoming US military pressure to reduce only the Iranian presence in Syria.
Currently the United States will try to organize a harassment guerrilla warfare to keep the Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces on the ground beyond the limit; to increase the Russian, Iranian and Syrian military spending and finally create the peripheral destabilization of the new Assad’s Ba’athist State.
With or without the collaboration of old and new jihadist groups, having anyway relations with Saudi Arabia, which would like to harass Iran so as to reduce the Shiite pressure on the Houthi rebels of Yemen.
Iran was very cautious in providing significant and steady support to the Turkish government during and after Erdogan’s repression of the coup staged in August 2016 – the most vulnerable phase of the Turkish system, which is very subtle and careful, a “deep state” system built around Erdogan’s AKP Party and the Sunni destruction of the previous initiatory-Masonic-Kemalist Ergenekon sect in April 2011.
Hence any monetary, tax or political tension between Trump’s USA and Turkey, which is NATO’s second largest Army, is music to Iran’ Shi’ite ears.
Another aspect to be underlined is the good and new economic relations – through the tripartite commitment in Syria – between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which are essential to create a sort of “replacement or substitution economy” during the period of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and some European countries.
Particularly in the Iranian oil system, but also in the banking sector.
Furthermore, Erdogan wants a sound military agreement with Iran for a targeted approach on Idlib.
In Erdogan’s plans, the Turkish intelligence services (MIT) shall eliminate the Al Qaeda network in Idlib, while leaving the Sunni opposition untouched – a favour to Assad but, above all, to Iran.
Iran cannot certainly afford the destruction of its relations with the Sunni majority in Syria, which occupies precisely the territories of its future networks uniting Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon.
Just while Turkey held two US citizens and was subjected to a “money-laundering operation” through foreign operations abroad on its Lira and the new US tariffs on aluminium and steel, Erdogan played all his anti-American cards betting on the success of the Astana talks, so as to recover – to the East – the power that was now forbidden to the West.
For Assad and his Russian allies, the only way to put an end to the war is to take effective, and above all, quick action in Idlib.
An action which is, by majority, still organized by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, the Syrian faction of Al Qaeda.
As we will see at a later stage, the United States is fully opposed to the final operations on Idlib.
Russia, however, wants to attack Idlib so as to avoid keeping – on the border with Turkey – a pocket of jihadists who, by now, would immediately be out on the market for sale to the highest bidder, be it Western or Sunni.
Moreover, the liberation of the Kurdish city of Idlib would be an excellent calling card to deal with the three main Kurdish Armed Forces, which already actively cooperate with Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Hence Turkey wants to convince Russia to accept its new influence in the region, so as to conquer the city’s terrorist bases at first and later protect the inhabitants.
Conversely Russia wants to keep full control and command over the process for eradicating jihadist terrorism in Syria, which is still the necessary basis for the upcoming jihad in the Islamic republics of Southern Russia.
This is the reason why Russia has significantly increased its maritime presence on the Syrian coast.
Syria will soon accept considerable support from Russia, China, Iran and all the countries that will be at the top in the list of countries having the possibilities for investing in the deal of the century: the full reconstruction of Syrian cities and infrastructure after a bloody and ferocious war.
A deal from which the countries that have accepted an ambiguous, naive and inconsistent diktat will be excluded.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France