Toward a fine tuning in Syria
Following a telephone conversation between Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 29 regarding Syria, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is scheduled to meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Shvigo today, May 30. Turkish presidential sources said matters related to the Astana deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran for a de-escalation of tension in Syria were particularly discussed by Erdoğan and Putin.
Lieberman’s visit was actually announced on May 28, a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted to see “only Syrian troops” in the south of the civil war-hit country. That was a signal to Iran that pro-Iranian forces should withdraw from areas close to the Israeli border in order to avoid further escalating the tension. The Putin-Erdoğan conversation could also have additional importance regarding Israel-Iran tension in Syria.
Apart from Israeli troops’ killing of 61 Palestinians along the Gaza border on May 14, in the last few weeks Israel has carried out a number of attacks in Syria against pro-Iranian targets, killing a number of Iranian officers. There are estimated to be thousands of Iranian soldiers belonging to the Quds Brigades (the foreign operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards), as well as Lebanese Hezbollah forces and Shiite militia, fighting on Syrian soil on behalf of Bashar al-Assad as invited by him. Russia is the number one supporter of the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, with two major military bases there, and it has recently issued a warning that it would defend Israel if it is attacked by Iran and defend Iran if it is attacked by Israel.
Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14, Israel has started to raise its voice more, especially regarding the perceived threat due to the presence of pro-Iranian troops near its borders. Turkey is involved in the matter for a number of reasons: Firstly, it is engaged in a partnership with Russia and Iran within the framework of the Astana ceasefire process. Secondly, there is a Turkish military presence in northwest Syria, in agreement with Russia, against both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is seen by Ankara as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and by Russia as the “U.S.-proxy Kurdish militants.” Thirdly, Turkey does not want a Kurdish state established on its borders, while there are politicians in Israel who could support such a state as a buffer zone against Iran.
Turkey is not comfortable with either pro-Iranian military activity near its borders with Syria or the U.S.’s ongoing collaboration with the YPG. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is scheduled to have a key meeting with his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo on June 4 in Washington to discuss matters related to YPG-U.S. cooperation in Syria.
So it seems the balances in Syria are again on the threshold of a new political fine-tuning.