Is Russian President Vladimir Putin treating the Syrian conflict as a geopolitical version of a symphony by Tchaikovsky? Well, he started his intervention in Syria with a soft overture in the form of occasional support for the forces of the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad before launching the first movement in the form of carpet bombing several cities, notably Aleppo, into submission.
In the second movement, he switched to adagio mode by helping Assad’s forces kill or expel as many anti-regime fighters as possible.
Last week, Putin started preparing for what he hopes will be the grand finale: an attack on Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-Assad rebels. With that in mind, the Russian leader has assembled the largest aero-naval battle group Russia has deployed for a single operation since the Second World War.
In Tehran, Putin hopes to sell his grand finale to Iran and Turkey, the two players in the Syrian imbroglio that, for different reasons, have decided to accord their cacophonic partitions with Putin’s symphony of death and destruction.
The so-called trilateral Astana Group had to hold its latest session in Tehran because Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cannot travel abroad due to concerns about an Interpol “red notice” issued by a criminal court in Berlin.
By the time of this writing, it seemed that in Tehran, Putin would clinch at least part of the deal he wants.
As indicated by the haste with which President Hassan Rouhani was sent to Kazakhstan to sign the Russian-dictated Caspian Sea Convention, the leadership in Tehran is in an accommodating mood vis-a-vis Moscow. All that the mullahs want is for Putin to let them continue having some presence, even if largely symbolic, in Syria. Mired in a worsening economic crisis and challenged by nationwide protests, the ruling mullahs are left with a narrative based on the claim that they are fighting in Syria so that they won’t have to fight anti-Shiite militants in Iran itself. Losing that narrative would mean a possibly fatal humiliation for a regime that has little to offer Iranians.
Keeping the illusion alive
To keep the illusion alive that Tehran is still a big player in Syria, Khamenei dispatched Defense Minister Gen. Amir Hatami to Damascus to sign what was presented as a defense treaty. In face this was no such thing. The two had signed a defense Treaty in 2006 which never fully came into effect.
The new accord was an addendum envisaging a role for Iran in reorganizing and retraining Assad’s army when and if the war is over.
However, everyone knows that Assad’s own future is still in doubt and that if Russia remains the final arbiter of matters in Syria it would not allow the Iranians to secure a major presence in any future Syrian army.
Putin may have more trouble persuading Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to swallow the grand finale in Idlib.
Seven years ago, as the “Arab Spring” flared from one country to another, Erdogan started dreaming of a neo-Ottoman “space”, if not an empire, spanning a vast swathe of territory from North Africa to the borders of Iran.
In Syria, he abandoned an early alliance with the Assad clan in favor of an alliance with the local branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. By 2018, Erdogan’s grand dream had shrunk into a small fantasy of creating “Kurdish-free” enclave inside Syria across the border. Now, if Putin flushes Turkey’s last Syrian allies out of Idlib, Erdogan will be left with an even smaller fantasy-land named “Euphrates Shield Zone” where he is building what looks like a Turkish Bantustan. A new tsunami of refugees from Idlib could wash away that Bantustan, leaving Erdogan with little to show for his massive investment of blood and treasure in an ill-designed adventure.
My guess is that Putin will try to throw a few crumbs to Erdogan. Putin still hopes, in my opinion wrongly, that he could loosen Turkey’s traditional moorings in the Western alliance.
Humiliating Erdogan at this stage may undermine that strategic goal.
Khamenei may have no choice but to accept some Turkish role in Syria for two reasons. The first is that, like Putin, he hopes to see Turkey distance itself from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and seven decades of close ties with Washington. The second reason is that, once new American sanctions come into effect in November, Tehran would need Turkish help in sanction busting operations to keep the Iranian economy afloat until Donald Trump leaves the White House.
What about Assad in all this, one may wonder as an afterthought?
The truth is that though, strategically speaking, Assad is no longer relevant to the future of Syria, almost all major players, including the US and its local allies still firmly ensconced in nearly 30 percent of Syrian territory, need the despot for various reasons. Russia and Iran need him to claim that they are in Syria at the invitation of its legal government headed by Assad. After all, it was Assad who signed the lease for the Russian bases and Assad again who gave his stamp of approval to the presence in Syria of an army of Lebanese, Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi mercenaries raised by Iran.
Turkey needs Assad to bolster its claim as the last defender of Syrian Sunni majority against the minority ruling clan.
The US and its allies also need Assad in the role of a genocidal maniac whose very existence justifies their presence on Syrian soil.
Israel, too, needs Assad not only to help keep Syria in a tragic limbo but also because for four decades the Assad clan guaranteed the security of the ceasefire line at the Golan Heights. In his just-published memoirs, John Kerry, the US former Secretary of State, reveals how Assad even offered to cede the Golan to Israel in exchange for a guarantee for his regime’s survival.
In last week’s summit in Tehran, Putin, Khamenei and Erdogan are three jugglers engaged in multiple deceptions. As for Assad, he is a phantom, seen but not heard.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.