In the last week of January, US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffery, travelled to Europe to step up US economic pressure on Syria due to its ‘attacks’ on Idlib. While it may sound strange why the US would sanction Syria for its resounding successes against al-Qaeda jihadi groups, the fact of the matter is that these rouge groups remain US allies in many ways and even continue to receive ‘help’ in the form of weapons to sustain their hold of the Syrian territories. As such, whereas Soleimani’s killing was meant to disrupt Iranian operations in Iraq and Syria, the recent success of the Syrian forces, in which Soleimani trained fighters took part, showed emphatically that the US has failed once again in its objectives; hence, the new resolve to sanction Syria in order to create difficulties for Syria’s allies.
In a press statement given on January 27, Mike Pompeo said that the US is observing “the situation in northwest Syria where the combined forces of Russia, the Iranian regime, Hizballah, and the Assad regime reportedly are conducting a large-scale assault upon the people of Idlib and western Aleppo province”, adding further that “The United States is prepared to take the strongest diplomatic and economic actions against the Assad regime and any state or individual that aids its brutal agenda.”
While Mike Pompeo could hardly be expected to say anything about the al-Qaeda affiliate groups and how they continue to receive military support, including the made-in-US TOW anti-tank missiles, there is no gainsaying that the US is aiming to reinsert itself violently in Syria when the Syrian forces are inching towards a total reclamation of their country. The US, as it stands, simply doesn’t want this to happen, especially because of an Iranian expansion accompanying this victory.
For the US, as an unnamed US official told the National Interest, “It’s been long-standing US policy, reiterated by the President to Congress, Mike Pompeo, and the rest of us many times publicly, that all Iranian-commanded forces—which would include, in our view, [Hezbollah]—leave Syria.” The pressure on Syria, therefore, is very much a part of the US’ war on Iran. Whether or not it will be able to succeed is a moot question. Considering, however, the way the Syrian forces, supported by Russia and Iran, continue to liberate and reclaim their territory, prospects for such a plan’s success are not bright enough.
The Russian strategy, as far as the question of defeating US plans is concerned, is to quickly liberate enough of the Syrian territory to leave US plans ineffective and useless. For example, the recent victory over the town of Maarat al-Numan is an extremely significant development in that this might become the gateway for further liberations across the norther Syria.
The town is located on the strategically very important highway, M-4. This highway connects western regions of Syria, where the Russian bases are located, with its northeastern regions and runs all the way along Turkish border.
An increasing Russian and Syrian control of the region along the highway would mean that they will not only be able to neutralise al-Qaeda groups, but also facilitate Turkish concerns vis-à-vis Kurdish forces in the region. If the region falls under Syrian control, this would practically eliminate Kurdish threat to Turkey—an arrangement that Turkey can only hope to reject at the expense of its relations with Russia. Contrary to this, Russia and Turkey continue to work closely in Idlib and strengthen their relations, taking Turley away from the US.
This was evident when the US president Trump recently called Erdogan to discuss the Syrian crisis. Interestingly enough, while the White House readout of the call stressed that the two leaders discussed geopolitical matters, Turkey called it on a “courtesy call”, completely downplaying the geopolitical issues, highlighting how it was not “disturbed” by the increasing Syrian, Iranian and Russian activity in that part of Syria where the Turks, too, have serious interests.
Besides it, M-4 is also one particular highway that provides the land route to Iran via Iraq to Syria and then to Lebanon, explaining why the capture of this town has already sent a wave of unrest across Washington, irking Mike Pompeo and his hawkish team of experts in the State Department, leading them to resolve to put pressure on Syria.
All of this boils down to a developing strategic understanding between Syria and Turkey due to Russian mediation. This was pretty evident when heads of Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies met in Kremlin on January 13, first time ever since 2011. The discussion focused on a nine-point road map to advance their dialogue, including a goal to cooperate against terrorism and a joint mechanism for containing Kurdish groups operating in the region.
Syria and Russia, as it stands, seem keen to address Turkish interests in order to speedify their control of the Syrian territories in order to defeat the US plan for revamping jihadi groups and thus keep the country embroiled in conflict.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.