The column I penned for Daily Sabah last week, "Putin's endgame in Syria is close at hand," received a lot of attention and positive feedback. In it I basically tried to analyze the rift between regional countries, but also among pro-Russian and pro-Iranian military men in Bashar Assad regime's army and the fragmentations inside, while many of us who follow the Syrian crisis have focused on the zigzagging developments east of the Euphrates after U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal announcement. In my opinion, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is an old pro in handling conflicts such as the years-long war in Syria, has an endgame plan, and this plan has appeared on the horizon even though there are still many complications on the ground.
Nevertheless, there was a missing part in the last week's column: Idlib, the most important piece of the puzzle. As we recall, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Putin agreed to create a demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib region to separate the government and opposition forces on Sept. 17, 2018. After the agreement, the civilians in Syria, who were waiting for a huge attack from the regime and its allies, were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. The agreement between the two countries came just 10 days after the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Tehran on Sept. 7, 2018, where they had failed to agree on a cease-fire for Idlib. Idlib was the most important topic on their agenda. And we cannot forget that the whole summit had been televised live by Tehran, without informing the Turkish and Russian attendants. This act, of course, raised many questions; it was kind of a trap, especially against Turkish President Erdoğan. Most likely, the Iranians were seeking reactions from Erdoğan that could later be distorted through media and social media; but it ended with a backlash. Iran helped us see that Erdoğan was just asking for a cease-fire in Idlib to spare the lives of millions.
Since the agreement between Russia and Turkey came right after the trio's Tehran summit, we can deduce that Iran's move also irritated Putin, who also didn't know that they were all televised. Following the Russia-Turkey agreement, Iranian newspapers were filled with articles complaining about "Russia's betrayal." The Assad regime was also frustrated, as it was planning to take control of Idlib, spilling tons of blood and declaring his victory. It was blocked by Putin and Erdoğan.
Putin and Erdoğan's Moscow agreement was kind of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and it was one of the most clear signs that show us how determined Putin is to end the war in Syria by cooperating with Turkey, unlike Iran. In the best-case scenario, Erdoğan and Putin spared the lives in Idlib. According to the agreement, the borders of Idlib would be protected, and Idlib's status would be preserved. In addition, the terrorist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), rebranded al-Nusra after its split from al-Qaida, or Tanzim Huras al-Din (Huras), a new radical group on the ground that was founded last year objecting to the trajectory followed by the HTS, would be liquidated. However, the very first and biggest attack on the agreement came on the night of the deal. A Russian IL-20 spy plane was shot down in Latakia. The downing of the plane was a sign that some circles were displeased with Erdoğan and Putin's rapid solution to the Idlib crisis.
It was alleged that the plane was accidentally shot down by a Russian made S-200 Syrian missile system, which Moscow sold to Syria, as they tried to repel an alleged Israeli strike that night. It was claimed that it was exposed to friendly Syrian fire that was directed toward an Israeli air raid nearby. I never believed that it was a friendly fire. The Russians have been tolerating Israel, which has conducted hundreds of airstrikes over two years in Syria on the bases of Iran-backed militias. On the other hand, Israel has never targeted the Russian military. Instead, it has been seeking good relations with Russia, which is basically operating as the air force of the Syrian regime. Even though the Kremlin accused Israel of informing them just a minute before the airstrikes, Putin chose to say that the downing of the plane was a result of "a chain of tragic accidental circumstances." So, it would not be in Israel's interest to cause the downing of a Russian plane. But, was it really a tragic accident?
A mysterious death
The IL-20 incident had reminded me of the mysterious death of Gen. Igor Sergun, the director of Russia's military intelligence service. According to the Lebanese daily Al Akhbar, Sergun was killed in Lebanon's capital, Beirut on Jan. 3, 2016. Moreover, the Financial Times reported that Sergun had been sent to Damascus by Putin on a sensitive mission to ask Assad to step down before he came to Beirut. According to the source for the paper, he was tasked with a secret proposal from Putin to remove Assad but maintain the regime, alongside "realistic" negotiations with the moderate opposition. Assad, of course, reportedly made clear to Sergun that he would not go and stay. Rejecting the claims, the Kremlin never revealed where Sergun died. It only said that he died of a sudden heart attack.
Was Sergun's death really because of a heart attack or was it a message from Assad supporters other than Russia, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, showing that Assad would never step down? Likewise, was the downing of IL-20 really an accident or was it a job of the people who felt betrayed by Russia after the Idlib deal? As I mentioned above, it was and still is no secret that the Assad regime was dreaming of a devastating offensive in Idlib with the help of Russia, but couldn't get it. In addition, Russia has been strengthening its position in Syria, as I analyzed in my column last week, and Iran feels sidelined, especially after the Idlib offensive was averted. As Russia is the boss of Assad regime supporters, and it can't be challenged openly, what if someone tried to get some bites from Putin and took the revenge on the demilitarization deal by "accidentally" downing the Russian plane? It might sound like a conspiracy theory, but after all we have seen in Syria, I sometimes bet on such conspiracies.
Recently, the regime's attacks on Idlib have been increasing even though there is an agreement between Russia and Turkey, and Idlib was designated a "de-escalation zone" in May last year, where acts of aggression are forbidden. Regime attacks in Idlib are estimated to have killed at least 80 civilians and injured more than 200 since the start of this year, especially in the southern rural areas. But on the other hand, Huras has been trying to take advantage of the global focus on the U.S.' confusing statements with regard to Trump's withdrawal plan, and trying to take control of several cities and towns in Idlib which are controlled by the groups supported by Turkey or the others that accepted the Turkish-Russian deal. In addition to that, according to some rumors, more interestingly, the HTS is planning to attack Huras and expel it from Idlib. It can be either seen as a credible act or a move to show its new look is genuine and trustworthy. However, the statements of Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders over Idlib during the last Sochi summit show that the situation in Idlib is getting more urgent. Even though the Kremlin said no offensive was planned after the summit, Erdoğan recently said there might be a joint military operation if needed, vowing that they will continue to work for the full implementation of an Ankara-Moscow protocol. The escalation inside Idlib, of course, is whetting the Assad regime's appetite. Besides, we can't say that Iran is concerned about a possible failure of the Russian-Turkish deal.
In fact, Turkey has already gotten good results eliminating al-Qaida affiliated groups inside Idlib for more than a year. Avoiding internal clashes, which would risk the lives of civilians, Turkey has been pressuring mainstream opposition groups to join forces and challenge the HTS and other smaller terrorist groups. Last winter, Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki came together and formed the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), while most of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions merged under the National Liberation Front (NLF). By uniting all these groups, Turkey has pushed them to confront the radical elements. Maybe, that's why the HTS had to change its strategy and chose to obey the new rules.
On the other hand, on Monday, Assad was in Tehran and met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It was his first public visit since 2011 to his closest ally and the only guardian left to protect him. During the meeting, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, who have appeared on front lines across Syria recalling the attempts of Iran's Shiite expansion plans in the region, was sitting next to Assad. Iran has shown with this meeting that it will never let the Arab League's efforts to take Syria back to their side after it spilled so much blood in the war-torn country. Remembering Putin's surprise visit to the Russian Khmeimim airbase in Latakia and behaving like Assad was a low-ranking bureaucrat, most importantly, the meeting was a message of Iran to Russia that it will continue to fully support the bloody dictator. Probably that's why Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zariff announced his resignation on the night of the meeting, as he would not be able to control Iran's Syria policy's diplomatic component. It looks like we will see Qassem Soleimani more frequently next to the pro-Iranian soldiers of Assad, such as the Fourth Division led by Maher Assad, against pro-Russian units like the Fifth Division of Suhail al-Hassan on the ground. This is more concerning for me right now: There might be some consequences from this internal rift over Idlib. We will see if Russia and pro-Russian soldiers will be able to stop pro-Iranian soldiers and militias from attacking the last remaining stronghold of the opposition and the shelter for millions of civilians or drop by the wayside.