The endgame?

September was an eventful month in Syria. Even as the Western powers led by the United States were predicting a humanitarian catastrophe in the rebel-held areas of Idlib province in western Syria, Russia and Turkey sprang a surprise by announcing in the third week of September that a deal had been reached whereby the Syrian government would temporarily put on hold its plans for launching a military offensive. Russia and Turkey agreed to establish “a demilitarised zone” that would separate the rebels and the Syrian army, which is determined to purge the last remnants of terrorism from the country. The agreement was announced after a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort town of Sochi. President Putin said that the two sides had agreed to the creation of a 20-24-kilometre-wide buffer zone separating the rebel forces from the Syrian army by the middle of October. The rebel fighters, along with their heavy weaponry, will have to exit from the demilitarised zone by October 10.

Turkey now fears that the imminent defeat of the rebels and their jehadist compatriots will trigger a new refugee flow into its territory. Many of the extremists currently holed up in Idlib will also eventually find their way into Turkey, which is among the main backers of the principal rebel groups in Idlib. This motley group of rebels has hard-core jehadists, including those owing allegiance to Al Qaeda outfits such as the Tahrir al Sham. Idlib is the last pocket of resistance following the fall of rebel strongholds in Aleppo, Daraa and Damascus in the last couple of years.

The government in Damascus has been trying to get the rebels there to surrender or defeat them militarily. It was evident, despite forecasts by the West of an imminent attack by government forces, that Damascus was ready to exercise patience. Senior officials in the Donald Trump administration such as Nikki Haley had gone to the ridiculous extent of predicting that the Syrian government was preparing to use poison gas on its people. The Trump administration was evidently waiting for an excuse to bomb Syria again. The Russian government had issued a series of warnings that the rebel groups were preparing to stage a fake chemical attack, like they had done in the past, in order to precipitate a Western military attack on Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, issued a strong warning to the terrorist groups and their patrons. “We warn the terrorists and their sponsors that new provocations involving chemical weapons are unacceptable,” he declared. He said that reconstruction of the war-torn country should be the priority for the international community and that it should be implemented without any “double standards”. He told the media in New York that the American military presence in Syria was illegal and went against U.N. Security Council resolutions. He also said that the United States was protecting terrorist groups in the al-Tanf area.

Reports from the ground in Syria, including from reputed Western correspondents like Robert Fisk, had belied stories of an imminent large-scale aerial and ground attack against the populated parts of Idlib province, which has an estimated three million people, along with 30,000 rebel fighters. The rebels have been evidently told by their patrons such as Turkey to give up fighting. The Syrian government has promised them amnesty or safe passage out of Idlib. The die-hard jehadi fighters, especially those belonging to the al Nusra, are still insisting that they would rather die fighting than surrender.

‘Occupying forces should withdraw’

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is the Special Representative of the Russian President, said in late September that the goal of liberating the whole of Idlib from terrorists remained unchanged and that setting up “de-escalation zones” was only a “temporary measure”. Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid al Moualem, who is also Foreign Minister, said in his speech at the General Assembly that the U.S., French and Turkish troops operating in Syrian territory, which he described as “occupying forces”, should withdraw immediately and “without conditions”. He assured the General Assembly that the battle against terrorism was nearing its end and that the need of the hour was to ensure the quick return of millions of Syrians displaced during seven years of bloodshed. Blaming the “illegal coalition” led by the U.S. for the widespread destruction in his country, he said it had “fought everything but terrorism…. Instead it has proved that its goals are almost the same as the terrorist groups, mainly fostering chaos, death and destruction.”

Israel, a de facto member of the coalition, has been trying to undo the substantive gains made by Syria, Russia, Iran and allies such as Hizbollah in the war against terrorism. Israel has the dubious distinction of having carried out more than 200 air strikes on Syrian government targets in the last two years in its increasingly desperate efforts to stop the decimation of the terror groups by the Syrian army. In recent years, it has been justifying its attacks by saying that the real targets are Iranian military advisers who have played a crucial role in the defeat of the jehadi forces. Before that, the Israelis said that they were targeting Iranian missiles and armaments meant for the Hizbollah militia in Lebanon that were transiting through Syria. The Russians, for reasons of their own, had decided to look the other way as Israel was allowed a free run over Syrian airspace. Moscow is playing a careful balancing game as it manages friendly relations with both Tel Aviv and Tehran.

But predictably, the Israelis overplayed their hand. In the second week of September, a Russian military surveillance plane inside Syrian airspace was shot down. Israeli fighter jets on a bombing mission over Latakia had taken shelter behind the Russian IL-20 reconnaissance plane as they came under attack from Syrian ground defences. The Russian plane came down in the crossfire. The Israelis had not bothered to inform the Russian ground control either about the presence of the plane or about the mission it was conducting. All 15 crew members on board were killed.

The Kremlin was livid. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who thinks he has “a special relationship” with Putin, tried to blame the Syrian army. The Russian Defence Ministry angrily accused the Israelis of positioning their F-16 jets behind the Russian transport plane. Israel was also accused of not adhering to the one-minute warning system agreed between the two militaries, whereby notice is given to the Russian military before the Israelis decide to strike a military target inside Syria. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the Israelis had deliberately used the Russian surveillance plane as a cover for their own war planes “on the assumption that Syrian air defences would not be operating in the area”. Shoigu pledged that Russia would not leave “such provocations unanswered”.

The Kremlin seems to have at last decided to end the free run Israel enjoyed over the skies of Syria. Within days of the downing of the Russian plane, the Kremlin announced that it was bringing in the lethal S-300 missile batteries to Syria. Netanyahu had wanted to send a high-level delegation to Moscow to persuade the authorities there about Israel’s non-culpability in the downing of the Russian plane. Moscow politely refused to receive it. The Kremlin said there was enough evidence to prove Israel’s guilt. The S-300s, which have been compared to the U.S.’ Patriot systems, have a range of more than 250 km. The Russians have also installed an electronic system in Syria that is able to distinguish between friendly and enemy aircraft. According to reports, Russia will shortly dispatch two to four S-300 systems to guard Syria’s coastline and its borders. More S-300 units will be sent in later.

The Russians have already sent sophisticated electronic equipment to Syria that is able to interrupt the radar and navigation equipment of hostile aircraft. Military experts agree that the deployment of the new missiles will significantly curb Israel’s ability to hit targets in Syria at will. If deployed in Damascus, the missile system will be able to monitor the entire Israeli airspace. According to Russian officials, the S-300s will help Syria regain full sovereignty over its airspace as it will now have the capability to close its airspace “where necessary”. The “defensive weapons”, according to defence analysts, will lead “to the stabilisation of the region”.

John Bolton, National Security Adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, has termed the stationing of the S-300 missiles as “a significant escalation”. But Netanyahu has said that it will not stop Israel from continuing with its raids. He told the media that he had got assurances from the Trump administration that it would continue backing Israel’s bombing campaign in Syria. “We will continue to act to prevent Iranian build-up in Syria,” he said. There are only a handful of Iranian military advisers in Syria. Iran does not need military bases in the region to spread its political influence. Israeli Defence Minister Avignor Lieberman has talked of destroying all missile systems in Syria if Israeli planes are targeted on their bombing missions. This prompted Russia to issue a warning that any such act would result in a dramatic escalation of the conflict.

There have not been any serious Israeli acts of aggression against Syria since the downing of the Russian plane despite the threats issued by Netanyahu and his Defence Minister. The recent events could in fact hasten the end of the insurrection supported by the West and its allies in Syria. More than 50,000 Syrian refugees have returned home in the last couple of months. Once Idlib is liberated and U.S troops leave the eastern part of Syria, comprehensive peace could once again return to the country.

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