Putin brokers Israel-Syria ‘goodwill gestures’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released two Syrian prisoners as a "goodwill gesture” last week, a sign that he may be ready to live and let live with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The prisoners’ release “was the sole decision” of Netanyahu, Ben Caspit reports, “made without authorization from the Cabinet and carried out in utmost secrecy. In the harsh public and political criticism that followed, it was argued that the move was the second part of a secret deal that Netanyahu made with Assad under the mediation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The first step, it was said, was the transfer of the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel to Israel just prior to the April 9 elections, winning Netanyahu brownie points from the public as a world-class statesman,” as we reported here.
Putin, it will be recalled, outed Syria’s role in the return of Baumel’s remains, telling Netanyahu, “As you may know, our military personnel and their Syrian partners helped find Zachary’s remains.” The official response from the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) at the time was that “Syria has no clue” about Baumel and that the incident confirms “cooperation between terrorist groups and Mossad.”
Russia Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev later said that the retrieval of Baumel’s body “paid off for Syria in the end” and that Russia “would never act in a way that contradicts Syria’s interests.”
“Between the lines is another astonishing fact with regard to Israel’s relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” writes Caspit. “Many high-level Israeli figures have long since branded Assad as finished, someone who had lost international and ethical legitimacy and committed genocide on his own people. Now, however, it seems that Israel has simply decided to reconcile itself to Assad’s full return to power. It even maintains covert relations with Assad via Russian mediation, including goodwill measures and confidence-building steps. Despite Israel's frequent attacks on Iranian targets in Syrian territory, according to foreign reports, there are no direct conflicts with the Syrian ruler himself. On the contrary — many high-level Israeli figures have maintained over the last two years that Assad knows that he has a lot to lose from the Iranian presence on his territory and agreed to it only under pressure. He is loath to pay Israel the price for that presence.”
“Could it be,” Caspit asks, “that the Israeli-Syrian deal was designed to mobilize Assad to leave the Iranian camp for the Israeli side, with Russian encouragement?”
Pro-Syrian commentators have suggested that Putin, and by extension Assad, got burned in the exchange with Netanyahu. Syria News remarked that Netanyahu released “a Palestinian who didn’t want to go to Syria in the first place … and a drug dealer who has already spent his 11 years sentence in the Israeli prisons and was set to be released in a couple of months completing his sentence without any deal!”
SANA nonetheless reported the return of the prisoners on April 28, with photos, and quoted Quneitra's governor, Humam Dibyat, as saying that “the Syrian state puts the liberation of all captives in the Israeli occupation prisons as a priority, on top of them Sidqi al-Maqt and Amal Abu Saleh.” The reference to Syria’s most prominent prisoners in Israel hinted that Damascus may have expected they would have been the ones released. It might also signal the prospect of a subsequent exchange or some other quid pro quo to compensate, from Damascus’ perspective, from a disappointing trade.
US Syria envoy James Jeffrey was in Ankara this week to narrow differences with Turkey over a "safe zone" on the Syrian-Turkish border.
The official Turkish readout of Jeffrey’s meeting with Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin on May 1 set a high bar for the talks: “With the planned safe zone, Turkey’s security concerns would be addressed and the area would be cleared of all terror groups.”
For Turkey, “all terror groups” includes the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US on-the-ground-partner in the coalition to defeat the Islamic State.
Amberin Zaman got the scoop on the gap between the Turkish and Kurdish sides heading into the talks: “Turkey wants a lead role in a safe zone that would be 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep and stretch the length of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory all the way to Iraq.”
“The trouble is that the YPG refuses to accept any Turkish presence in Kurdish-controlled territory stretching east of the Euphrates River to Iraq,” Zaman writes. “It has reportedly rejected one of the ideas being floated — that Turkish and US forces conduct joint patrols as they currently do in Manbij. The Arab-majority town that lies west of the river has been the source of unremitting tension between Turkey and the United States.”
SDF commander Mazlum Kobane’s demand that Turkey “return Afrin to its people,” is also a nonstarter, Zaman reports.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was guarded following Jeffrey’s meetings, saying, “We have not agreed on everything, but we are making progress,” while Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said he “was extremely happy to see that Jeffrey and his delegation have moved closer to our position.”
“By painting a rosy picture,” Zaman writes, “Turkey jams US officials into a corner from which they can’t publicly contradict Ankara in hopes over time to pull them toward its own interpretation of events.”
Kobane said on May 3 that the SDF was holding indirect talks with Ankara through "intermediaries," adds Zaman, “in other words, through the United States. Kobane said his group stood ready to negotiate with Turkey and resolve outstanding problems in ‘peaceful ways.’”
The recent US diplomatic flurry with Turkey reflects Washington’s priority in getting Ankara more closely aligned with American objectives in Syria, and preventing a Turkish attack on the YPG. This is no easy task, given the differences over the YPG and PYD, Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defense systems, Americans held in Turkish jails and Ankara’s indignation that the United States will not extradite Fetullah Gulen, who it blames for the attempted coup in 2016.
Meanwhile, Turkey is joined with Iran and Russia in the Astana group talks on Syria. Representatives of the three countries met April 25-26 for the 12th time since October 2016 in Nursultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, as reported here by Kirill Semenov. The Astana grouping is, in principle, based on the conditions for a Syrian transition in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The Astana format has basically absorbed, and in many ways overtaken, the Geneva process. UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen participated in last week’s talks. The United States and Jordan are observers, rather than participants, in these sessions. Iraq and Lebanon, which favor some lines of engagement with Damascus, were added last week as Astana observers.
Both Russia and Iran have also developed a backchannel between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Assad. The Syrian Kurds are already talking with the Syrian government, and we can probably expect that channel to accelerate, as the United States seeks to accommodate Turkey while withdrawing its ground forces from Syria.
The first-order challenge for the Trump administration is whether it can tilt Turkey away from the Astana orbit – a tall order, given Putin’s assertive diplomacy in Syria, the strains in US-Turkey ties and a trend toward normalization with Damascus among some regional states. The UAE, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and other Arab countries, to varying degrees, are also seeking to rebuild ties with Syria, in part to balance Iranian influence. And even Israel may be resigned to Assad’s staying power, as reported above.
Jeffrey’s meetings reflect an aggressive US approach to turning this around. Otherwise, there is probably only so long the United States may be able to keep up the present workaround of the Assad government. The trendlines "on the ground" lead to dealing with Damascus. Washington is nonetheless steadfast in its opposition to any normalization efforts. US oil sanctions are taking their toll, and if Iran policy is any guide, we can expect even more sanctions on Syria in the coming months.