Saturday,21 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)
Saturday,21 April, 2018
Issue 1386, (22 - 28 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A Russian-Turkish carve-up

Russia now controls the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, and Turkey controls Afrin in the north of the country, amounting to a carve-up of Syria between two foreign powers, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

 

A Russian-Turkish carve-up
A Russian-Turkish carve-up

After a military campaign by the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad that started on 25 February, the armed opposition has been forced to negotiate in order to evacuate its positions in central and northern Syria.

 Russia and Iranian militias have carried out intense bombardements of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, killing more than 1,000 people over three weeks, most of them civilians, and forcing the opposition to negotiate with Russia through UN mediators to leave the area. In return, there will be a ceasefire and an end of the attacks on Eastern Ghouta, the home to some 400,000 residents.

Non-stop airstrikes and a land offensive by the regime and pro-Iranian forces carved the area into two, displacing tens of thousands of people from it where the opposition had been in control. Continuous bombing and the inability of the opposition factions to defend themselves resulted in a mass response by residents demanding a ceasefire at any price, even if it meant fighters had to leave the area.

The regime and its allies will now take full control of Eastern Ghouta and the residents forced to sign a “reconciliation” deal with the regime like those enforced in other areas in the past. The regime wants to end the threat of opposition factions in control of areas east of Damascus, and this also guarantees the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence around the capital since ground forces composed of Hizbullah and Iraqi militias already control the ground.

The development also strengthens Russia’s hand in Syria since it controls Damascus and the surrounding suburbs, which are areas loyal to the regime.

Eastern Ghouta residents have endured five years of siege by government forces and have been subjected to the control of Islamist factions that have covertly dealt with the regime and warlords without clear allegiances. The residents resent both the regime that has been killing them and the factions that act entirely according to their own interests.

Although UN Security Council Resolution 2401 issued in late February called for a ceasefire, Russia refused to include Eastern Ghouta in it since “terrorists” were located in the area.  It is believed some 240 Islamist Al-Nusra Front fighters are in Eastern Ghouta, and Russia has refused to let them go, probably using them as a pretext for its continued bombing.

The attack on Eastern Ghouta, in some cases using banned weapons, has killed 1,000 civilians, displaced tens of thousands of others, and forced many more on the move. The residents want to reach a truce that will allow them to stay in their homes. Russia and the regime do not care either way, but Iran wants the residents to leave in order to change the demography of Damascus and the surrounding areas.

It is likely that any remaining fighters will acquiesce in order to avoid further losses and the displacement of more civilians.

The attack on Eastern Ghouta has been mirrored by Turkey’s invasion of the town of Afrin in northern Syria, which is intended to chase out Kurdish Democratic Union militias. Russia and Turkey, the guarantors of the present ceasefire, have joined together in interpreting UN Resolution 2401, saying it does not apply to them because they are “fighting terrorism” and under the pretext that there are terrorist groups in both areas.

This consensus comes after the two countries clashed on the Syrian crisis, with Russia unequivocally supporting the Syrian regime and Turkey supporting the revolution. However, this was before they found a common interest in opposing US policies in Syria and the opportunity to serve their own interests.

The Russians have therefore covered for the Turkish control of Afrin, and the Turks have covered for the control of Russia over Eastern Ghouta.

However, the latter remains a thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hoped to win the battle before the Russian presidential elections, and Afrin has remained a thorn in the side of Turkey, since the combatants there that are loyal to Ankara are radicalised and corrupt.

They displaced 150,000 Kurdish residents from Afrin and destroyed statues of historic figures in the city, spoiling the Turkish victory.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, commented that “Eastern Ghouta was sacrificed in exchange for Afrin, and the horrors that civilians are living through in both areas are the outcome of a deal between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan.”

“Today, Russia is occupying Eastern Ghouta in exchange for Turkey occupying Afrin with the help of Syrian agents who claim to oppose the regime and are in fact serving Russia and Turkey.”

On 23 February, US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that Russia “is responsible for the human tragedy in Eastern Ghouta,” and US Defence Department Spokeswoman Dana White accused Russia of being “a partner in the murders committed by the Al-Assad regime.”

The US has called for an urgent meeting in Jordan to discuss the crisis, and some media outlets have reported that the US is planning a powerful military strike against the regime, possibly activating the southern front in response to Russian escalation in Eastern Ghouta and support for Turkey’s actions in Afrin.

Fear of US strikes haunts the regime and is disconcerting for Russia, especially after statements by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on 12 March that the US “is still prepared to intervene if the Security Council procrastinates.” However, it seems unlikely that the US and Russia will clash in Syria, since developments there do not encroach on the US sphere of influence.

All the countries involved in Syria are forging on with their plans without giving a thought for Syrian lives. The regime has watched Iranian militias expanding around Damascus, encircling the capital, while the Turkish flag is flying over Afrin and possibly beyond.

 Russia controls the regime’s decisions, and the US controls strategic oil-rich areas. The regime has been claiming victory over the opposition, acting as if the situation was normal. Seven years into a brutal civil war, and this picture has not changed.

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