The last opportunity?

                     Since last week it seems to be clear that regardless all the opposition the Sudanese leadership seems resolved – or incapable to do otherwise – to fulfill its promise and normalize its relations with Israel. Whatever hope it had, or might still have to pull out from the settlement at a given time rapidly diminishes with every passing day. On one hand, Israel is passing out ever more information implicating that the Sudanese leadership took decision long ago, while on the other the Emirati and the Saudi rulers do their best to consolidate this agreement. And they do even more than the Americans.

            With this step, the Emirati-Israeli strategic alliance scored yet another big achievement and took on board a militarily and economically significant Arab country to serve their agendas. Which surely prompts – it has to – responses from the rival blocks, as by now Israeli sources openly talk about regional Arab-Israeli alliance, which is aimed both against Iran and the Turkish-Qatari block. As we suggested before the best and most likely course of action for Ankara and Doha to warm relations with Iran, find ways to align themselves with Russia and brace themselves. This is especially important for Qatar with less military power to maneuver and being more surrounded. And in this path, Syria plays a pivotal role, especially now.

            In the last few weeks, the Syrian scene witnessed gradual, but very telling changes. It was revealed that Washington probes ways to reopen connections with Damascus. Not much later in a rare, but puzzling move on the American liquidated the leadership of a terrorist gathering in Idlib. This was the only first very painful development in Syria for Turkey, a few days later the Russians made a very similar move.

            While Ankara heavily protests against Moscow’s recent move, it seems likely that this was not as surprising for the Turks, as they have already started to pull out from many of its observation posts in Idlib. That is altogether ten posts so far, and there might be even more. While this has much to do with the Russian-Turkish confrontation in Azerbaijan, there are indications that a major military offensive might be on the way soon in Idlib. Which poses both a dilemma, but also an opportunity for Turkey.

            At the same time, there is a great movement in Eastern Syria, where both a popular uprising and attacks by “unknown men” are increasing against the American occupation.


Where the roads of Idlib are heading?

            Ever since the last major military operation by the Syrian Army ended in Idlib and Moscow and Ankara came to terms about the fragile ceasefire there was an uneasy “calm” along the line of control. The Russian-Turkish joint patrols hardly started and were frequently attacked by militants. It was clear that Turkey has a hard to implement the deal with Russia, even it had a real determination to do so.

            The outbreak of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between the Armenians and the Azeris further complicated matters, as after Syria and Libya Russia and Turkey were opponents on yet another scene. This matter, however, is a delicate one, on which Moscow is much less ready to compromise. Not only because Armenia is a key ally and asset for Russia, but also because Erdoğan once again utilized his mercenaries in Syria and started to ship them over to Azerbaijan. Which has the threat that these militants would soon infiltrate into Russia.

            After the first wave of the conflict was over in Karabakh and it was clear that Turkey despite the heated narrative cannot break the tie, it was Russia’s turn to retaliate. On 20 October the Turkish army started to pull out from its observation post on the town of Mūrak, which came to be surrounded by the Syrian Army on 23 August 2019. These were followed by three others and altogether ten is about to be given up. All the abandoned posts are deep within the area controlled by the Syrian Army. Given these are surrounded for more than a year it is highly unlikely that Turkey would have simply just changed policy, and it is likely that the part of a larger deal, as Moscow already made preparations for a major military operation.

            And then surprisingly on 23 October, the Americans made an airstrike on a meeting of terrorist leaders in Idlib province, which allegedly killed six leading members. The Americans claim that they targeted the al-Qā‘ida. Yet given its nature of being a loose network of smaller organizations, that these armed groups are highly interwoven in Idlib, and there is practically nothing which is not connected to the Turkish forces there it is very probable that these were some sort of allies of Ankara. Only three days later the Russians took a similar, but a much bigger step, as they shelled the training and leadership center of the “Faylaq aš-Šām”, a terrorist organization belonging to the Turkish supported so called “Syrian National Army”. And that caused an infuriated response not only by the Turkish president but also by the Americans. The strike killed at least 78 terrorists and wounded another hundred. It hit near the town of Kafr Tahārīm, only ten kilometers away from the Turkish border, and so far such proximity meant protection. This was indeed a very clear message.

            The strike practically crippled the armed groups in Idlib and reportedly morale hit an all-time low. The strike most probably intended to cut the flow of mercenaries to Karabakh, as many of the freshly trained fighters were about to leave to either Azerbaijan or to Libya. But behind the scenes there seem to be much more going on. Similar strikes are ongoing and growing in Idlib since September. It is very unlikely that Russia would have made a strike without some level of cooperation with the Turkish side. Simply because these mercenaries are regularly trained and geared by the Turkish forces. Yet his time there are no sources talking about Turkish losses. This is practically impossible unless Ankara had some knowledge beforehand. Because otherwise there was no way to be sure there are no high-level Turkish officers on the ground. Their death would have been a huge embarrassment for Turkey and huge diplomatic complications. Which is not in the interest of either side.

            The following days will tell whether the situation returns to relative calm, or the preparations for a major offensive go on. The recent visit by a Russian delegation to Damascus is certainly not a reassuring sign for Ankara, knowing that Moscow is already annoyed by the lack of progress in the implementation of former agreements.

            The operation, which will come eventually, is both a problem and an opportunity for Turkey. The problem is known. Ankara has simply no way to contain the matter and rightfully fears that thousands of armed and trained radicals move into Turkey. Losing Idlib would also mean that the whole Syrian quest is lost. This is clear, but so far the Turkish leadership did not want to accept this reality. However, now that the militants suffered a huge blow, this might be the time for Ankara to slowly start to pull out. This way it can put an end to a costly and by now completely futile engagement. It can be a token of gesture to Moscow. And there are other signs for that, as Washington is about to impose new sanctions on Ankara for buying Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Right at the time when France is pushing for EU sanctions against Turkey, this would be a good time to sort things out with Russia. In exchange, Ankara could get better terms in other scenes. Less in Azerbaijan, but more likely in Libya.

            Even beyond Russia, however, pulling out from Idlib, or at least giving tangible signs for that would be a major gesture for the Axis of Resistance, the other major block in the Middle East worried by the Emirati-Israeli alliance. While a direct political rapprochement between Erdoğan himself and the Syrian President is unlikely, in such a process Ankara could use its best Arab ally, Qatar. Qatar’s relations with Damascus are also very troubled, as Doha was at the forefront of supporting the militancy against Syria since 2011. But recently in a surprising move, Doha reopened direct flights to Damascus. In light of the Corona pandemic, the weak political relations, and the almost non-existent economic ties this move can hardly be understood as anything else than a political gesture.

            If Doha can break the ice along with Russia and Iran it can be a mediator between Syria and Turkey. And this process can lead to better cooperation in light of the common threat posed by Abū Zabī and Tel Aviv. So it seems that the roads from Idlib can potentially lead very far.


The East is boiling too

            The situation in Eastern Syria, as the whole American-Syrian relationship is very complicated, controversial, and worsening. The illegal American presence in Eastern Syria is under pressure, as the attacks on their bases and troops are growing and they meet more and more resistance from both the Syrian Army and the local population. At the same time, Washington does not want to sacrifice major forces to this project and for that end set up the mostly Kurdish Qasad (Syrian Democratic Forces) organization as the front, to be their local caretaker. As this is starting to be insufficient another force is being set up for the sole purpose to guard the oil wells and the American installations, but that is still in a very early – and not promising – stage.

            The problems started with more clashes between the local population and the Qasad, which by mid-August led to open tribal revolts and in many towns, local tribal forces smashed Qasad militants. In late September James Jeffrey himself, Trump’s Syrian envoy went to Eastern Syria to negotiate with sides on the ground. He was overall unsuccessful, and the tribal anger has not subsided and the Americans have losses almost every day. Not only themselves but much more their local allies and contractors is facing attacks by “unknown men”. There are frequent American raids retaliating and kidnapping Syrian civilians in the region that does not ease the pressure, only fuels anger. There are only guesses whether these “unknown men” belong to the Syrian forces, they are allies or tribal militias, but their pressure is growing and the Americans – against all promises of Trump to pull out – started to strengthen their positions.

            In this light two concurrent events are significant. First in mid-September Trump suggested that he wanted to assassinate the Syrian President and had the chance for it – a claim, which was heavily denied both those involved and previously by Trump himself -, and then it turned out Washington tried to reach an understanding with Damascus. Though the official American version claims that the attempt behind the secret negotiations was only to secure the release of American citizens believed to be held in Syria, it was confirmed the high-level White House officials were negotiating with Syrian Vice President ‘Alī Mamlūk. He is the most senior security official in the country. So surely there were many other topics as well. Allegedly Washington was surprised by the Syrian adamancy that the Americans have to pull out, as a precondition for any negotiations. But all that suggests that Washington knows Damascus can make the American presence unbearable, especially if Idlib is liberated. That is why Idlib is a key, and pressing question for Damascus.


Time for realignment.

            Recently it was suggested in the Arab press that the time might be right for a surprise move by Qatari Emir Tamīm to go to Damascus and start the reconciliation with Syria. Such a move going against the major current would not be the first one from the Qataris. And Emir Tamīm is not an entirely bad person for that, as the war against Syria was started by the previous Qatari leadership, while there is no personal dispute between the current Qatari monarch and Syrian President Baššār al-Asad. But are the sides ready for that? After all, a very similar approach was tried by the Emirates in December 2018, which was not received particularly well by the Syrians and the process eventually cooled off.

            Looking at all sides the time is ready for change. By this time Qatar can hope no gain whatsoever from prolonging its struggle with the Syrian government. So far there was no benefit from repairing these ties, but with the growing isolation, Qatar desperately needs friends. Doha rapidly losses its charm for both Washington and Tel Aviv, as the Emirates got ahead of it in every way. Arranging the peace talks with the Ṭālebān and securing a smooth American pullout from Afghanistan was a major gesture, which certainly does their credit. But such favors don’t last long and Doha surely knows that. The way out from the growing pressure and isolation is closer cooperation with Russia and China firstly, but also with other regional powers still at odds with the Emirates.

            Syrian is certainly ready to make peace with Qatar, especially that this is much easier than talking directly with Erdoğan. And if in this way a more peaceful handover in Idlib can be arranged settling a score with Qatar is a relatively small price. Closing this frontier means that Damascus could finally focus more on Eastern Syria, where the situation is already precarious.

            As we saw Turkey also has many benefits from closing this chapter. Failing to do so could mean that eventually Turkey will be forced out of Syria. In that case, it gains nothing but loses favor. While it has growing problems and no progress on all fronts, the Emirati-Israeli alliance makes very significant progress, and soon there will be no allies to gain in the region, as the potential friends are picked off one vs one. Two years ago Sudan was a likely ally, and Libya showed good progress. By now Libya reached a dead end and Sudan became incorporated into the enemy camp.

            For all sides this the time now to join forces. With the speed the Emiratis make now soon there will be no alternatives. For a major rapprochement between the two blocks, however, first, their conflict in Syria has to closed and this path starts in Idlib. The time is ticking, especially for Turkey, since right after Sudan the Emirates made another surprise move to gain for itself another Arab state, and isolate another, a potential Turkish ally.

            This is where we will continue next week.