Coalition strikes yet to derail the Astana process
The United States, Britain and France launched strikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria on April 14 in response to Bashar al-Assad’s alleged chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which had been held by rebels for years.
Considering the operation’s limited scope and the coalition forces’ statements, which emphasized that the operation was a one-time strike and not a prelude to regime change, it is doubtful that the operation will deter al-Assad from resorting to chemical weapons in the future if he sees fit.
The coalition’s strikes were more of a political power play than a humanitarian intervention. The underlying political objective was to decrease Iran’s foothold in Syria by exerting pressure on al-Assad’s ally Russia. The emphasis on Russia in the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2017, as well as the growing power of anti-Iran hawks in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest appointments, suggests that the U.S.’s pressure will increase on Moscow and Tehran in the near future.
The fact that Russia was deemed responsible for the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, that the U.S. stood shoulder to shoulder with its European allies to deport Russian diplomats – despite Trump’s reluctance, according to the Washington Post – and that new economic sanctions were imposed all show that this process has begun.
As expected, Ankara expressed its happiness – perhaps exaggeratedly so – with the strikes against al-Assad, reportedly creating some unease at the Kremlin.
In truth, Turkey has not changed its position on al-Assad at all. However, due to its structural contradictions, Turkey’s interest-based cooperation with Russia and Iran is in fact destined to come to a bottleneck. Frustrated with the West’s refusal to heed its security concerns, Turkey has moved closer to Russia and Iran since the second half of 2016. While this rapprochement enabled Ankara to launch military operations in Syria so as to secure its borders, the endgame is actually set to strengthen its pro-Assad partners in Syria, partners who just happen to be Turkey’s main geopolitical rivals historically.
It is the al-Assad regime’s consolidation of its battlefield gains that are likely to threaten the Astana process more than Ankara’s response to the coalition strikes. After taking back Ghouta, many expect Damascus to expand the areas under its control, increase the pressure on Turkey to hand over the lands it gained in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations and, more importantly, turn its attention to Idlib to clear out the remaining opposition. Any clashes in Idlib could prompt a new wave of migration toward Syria and, more dangerously, leave Turkey’s armed forces stuck in the middle of fighting between jihadists and regime forces.
Ankara is willing to maintain its cooperation with Russia and Iran within the framework of the Astana peace process for as long as it can. But if Turkey eventually finds itself compelled to move away from Russia, there is going to be a political cost to breaking up this partnership in Syria, given the asymmetrical nature of their bilateral relations.
As the regime strengthens itself and adopts a harder line, it is likely to demand a reckoning with its foes that sought to force it from power. Already, regime forces have advanced into a de-conflict zone in southern Syria, established by the U.S., Russia and Jordan last July, defying the agreement that would keep the Shiite militias at least 60 kilometers from the Israeli border.
If the U.S. is really determined to keep Iran out of Syria, we’ll be debating in the weeks to come how it intends to do this amid its withdrawal from Syria, which powers it plans to partner with and whether it will coordinate with Russia as it did for the last military operation.
Just how this plays out will go a long way to determining Turkey’s preferences in terms of its alliances in Syria.