Na­tions weigh fate of Syria without lo­cals

As­sad shut out of talks

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY PHILIP ISSA

BEIRUT | Un­der dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s cap­ture of Aleppo would project an aura of in­vin­ci­bil­ity. He has sur­vived nearly six years of re­volt.

In­stead, Aleppo has be­come a “vic­tory” that has un­der­scored his de­pen­dence on out­side pow­ers.

Tur­key, Iran and Russia have tilted re­cent events in his fa­vor, and it is those three play­ers — and per­haps the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion — that are now best placed to de­ter­mine Syria’s endgame.

The three na­tions met in Moscow last week for talks on Syria that point­edly in­cluded no Syr­i­ans, in­di­cat­ing they pre­fer to pur­sue a grand bar­gain among great pow­ers rather than a do­mes­tic set­tle­ment between the government and the op­po­si­tion.

The warm­ing of ties between Russia and Tur­key, who back op­pos­ing sides of the civil war, may prove to be a game-changer, po­ten­tially help­ing to end a con­flict that has con­founded the world’s top diplo­mats for more than five years.

Their joint ef­forts on Syria — there is now talk of a na­tion­wide cease-fire — re­flect a de­sire to es­tab­lish spheres of in­flu­ence. Tur­key might drop its sup­port for rebels fight­ing Mr. As­sad in ex­change for free­dom of move­ment in a bor­der re­gion where its troops are bat­tling the Is­lamic State group and try­ing to curb the ad­vance of U.S.-backed Syr­ian Kur­dish forces.

Has­san Has­san, a Syr­ian an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton-based Tahrir In­sti­tute, called the Moscow sum­mit “a per­fect ex­am­ple of how the Syria so­lu­tion is now about a grand bar­gain whereby other coun­tries ne­go­ti­ate on be­half of Syr­i­ans.”

Syria’s army was only able to win the bat­tle of Aleppo with Rus­sian sup­port and the aid of thou­sands of Iran-backed mili­ti­a­men from across the re­gion. Tur­key struck a deal with Russia to man­age the rebels’ sur­ren­der when they were on the verge of to­tal de­feat.

Tur­key was an early backer of the rebels, al­low­ing them to re­treat and rearm across its largely por­ous bor­der. But as Syr­ian Kur­dish forces — an­swer­able nei­ther to Mr. As­sad nor to his op­po­nents — have ex­panded their en­clave along the bor­der, Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has come to view them as a greater threat than his old ad­ver­sary, Mr. As­sad.

Tur­key sees the main Syr­ian Kur­dish fac­tion as an ex­ten­sion of the Kur­dish in­sur­gency rag­ing in its south­west. It has also grown in­creas­ingly con­cerned about Is­lamic State fol­low­ing a se­ries of at­tacks. The Syr­ian Kurds are bat­tling Is­lamic State, but Tur­key de­scribes both as “ter­ror­ists” who must be elim­i­nated.

In Au­gust Turk­ish troops and al­lied Syr­ian forces poured across the bor­der, and in the fol­low­ing weeks they drove Is­lamic State from its last strongholds along the fron­tier and halted the Kur­dish ad­vance.

With more than 5,000 forces in­side Syria and a seat at the ta­ble, Tur­key seems poised to es­tab­lish a “sphere of in­flu­ence” in north­ern Syria, ac­cord­ing to Faysal Itani, an an­a­lyst at the Wash­ing­ton-based At­lantic Coun­cil.

It will likely press the is­sue when it meets with Russia and Iran in Kaza­khstan next month. The Syr­ian government and some con­cil­ia­tory op­po­si­tion groups will be there, but it’s un­clear whether Syria’s main armed op­po­si­tion will be in­vited.

The U.N. has mean­while vowed to re­launch the long-de­funct Geneva ne­go­ti­a­tions between the government and the rebels on Feb. 8. That process has re­peat­edly failed to pro­duce tan­gi­ble out­comes.

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