The Syria peace talks in Geneva, which are sponsored by the United Nations, have been postponed for three weeks by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura. The talks between the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian rebels collapsed during preliminary contacts between de Mistura and the warring parties. UN and Western officials blamed intensified Russian bombing of rebel positions as the main reason, while Moscow accused the rebels of being intransigent and setting unacceptable preconditions. De Mistura expressed hope the talks will soon resume, but there is no letup in the Russian aerial bombardments clearing the way for al-Assad loyalists to push on and totally eliminate the opposition to win the Syrian civil war. This has been the overall strategic objective of Russia’s military intervention in Syria from the beginning, while Moscow’s involvement in the Geneva peace talks was never more than a smokescreen. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists: “Russian strikes will not cease until we really defeat terrorist organizations [Moscow considers any armed opposition to al-Assad as ‘terrorist.’]. I don’t see why these air strikes should be stopped.” A ceasefire in Syria, according to Lavrov, may happen only after the Turkish-Syrian border “is closed to contraband that is supporting the [opposition] fighters.” Lavrov announced that Moscow has fulfilled its obligations to put pressure on Damascus to make peace: The al-Assad delegation arrived in Geneva “without any problems,” and now it is time for the West and regional sponsors of the opposition to do likewise (Mid.ru, February 3).
Massive Russian bombing has softened up the Syrian opposition defenses. Al-Assad forces, supported by Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, have been successful in pushing forward on different fronts in Syria, dislodging the opposition from positions they had successfully held during years of fighting. In particular, al-Assad forces have been advancing north of Aleppo, cutting supply lines to the Turkish border 50 kilometers north, apparently preparing to fully encircle and eventually take the city (Rg.ru, February 3). A Russian-led offensive also continues in northern Latakia province and in Idlib, with the stated purpose to defeat the rebels and “close” the Turkish border. At the same time, another Russian-led offensive is developing in the south: al-Assad forces are pressing from the provincial capital Daraa to the Jordanian border, with Russian bombers leading the way, according to Russian war correspondents on the spot (Kp.ru, February 4). Securing both the Turkish and Jordanian borders will, apparently, choke off the lifeline of the armed opposition in the north and south, leading to President al-Assad’s overall victory.
Thousands will be killed, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Syrian civilians will be pushed over the border into exile. But the prize Moscow is seeking is of huge value: securing Syria as a joint Russo-Iranian protectorate and military/political powerbase in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, a Russian-imposed solution of the Syrian crisis could further undermine the United States’ waning influence in the Middle East. Another bonus: millions more Syrian refugees could further destabilize the European Union and Turkey, possibly toppling governments in Berlin and Ankara that Moscow does not like. This could be a win-win situation, especially if Russian losses continue to stay low.
The United States is apparently considered in Moscow to be a spent force. On February 4, after a phone conversation with Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement calling on Russia to stop its bombing campaign, implying the bombing and a continued offensive by al-Assad forces indicates a desire on the part of the Kremlin to achieve a military, not a political solution (Interfax, February 4). The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Kerry and Lavrov agreed to jointly push for a speedy resumption of peace talks in Geneva and to seek ways to supply the needy in Syria with humanitarian aid, while Russia expressed disappointment with “some members” of the Syrian opposition seeking “unacceptable preconditions” (Mid.ru, February 4). The government paper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported: “Lavrov-Kerry agree on Syria” (Rg.ru, February 4). Moscow insists it was Kerry, who phoned Lavrov.
Kerry’s call on Russia to stop its bombing campaign was futile; the latter has categorically stated it will continue its Syrian offensive. But this exchange is being presented as an example of Washington disagreeing with Moscow on one issue (the bombing and al-Assad offensive), while nevertheless cooperating on a political solution. Kerry had been putting pressure on the Syrian opposition to go to Geneva and will apparently continue to do so until there is no opposition physically left in Syria.
Russia has humiliated Turkey and devastated the Syrian opposition, which has lost all hope of ever toppling al-Assad, according to the pro-Kremlin weekly Expert. On January 29, the Turkish military announced that a Russian Su-34 jet had violated Turkish airspace and that Turkish fighter pilots have been given orders to shoot at will in the future. Moscow flatly rejected the allegation as rubbish. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Pentagon have confirmed the Su-34 intrusion and warned against more trespassing, but this is seen in Moscow as an empty bluff by a humiliated and strategically defeated foe. In any case, it is believed in Moscow that the North Atlantic Alliance and Washington will surely press Ankara to eventually yield to avoid the threat of direct military confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia (Expert.ru, January 31).
After the alleged Su-34 incursion, Moscow dispatched to Syria four of its newest “supermaneuverable” Su-35S fighter jets, apparently to deter the Turks (RIA Novosti, February 1). The Russian military has accused the Turkish armed forces of shelling Syrian territory and of building up units for a possible invasion (Interfax, February 4). It has been announced that on February 10, an office of the Kurdish Supreme Committee (the government of Syrian Kurdistan) will be opened in Moscow. By allowing a de facto Syrian Kurdish embassy in Moscow, Russia is directly challenging the Turkish government and military, who consider the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Syrian Kurdistan to be an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara has been fighting the PKK for decades and labels the group a terrorist organization (Kommersant, February 4). As Kerry hopelessly tries to coax Russia into cooperating on a political solution in Syria that will remove al-Assad, while at the same time defeating jihadist extremists, the entire region seems to be sliding into an escalating confrontation: Turkey and Russia are now poised on the brink of war that could eventually drag in all of NATO. World War III might begin not in the Baltics as anticipated, but on the Turkish-Syrian border.