Executive Intelligence Review


The Final Assault on ISIS in Syria Parallels Russian Diplomacy Ahead of Russia-Iran-Turkey Summit

Feb. 12, 2019 (EIRNS)—The Syrian Democratic Forces are engaged in what they describe as the final campaign on ISIS in Syria. The assault began on Feb. 9, when the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moved on the town of Barghouz, on the Euphrates River near the border with Iraq, backed by U.S. airstrikes and French artillery firing from across the border in Iraq. The following day, the SDF claimed to have taken 44 ISIS fighting positions, but news reports on Feb. 11 indicated that ISIS had counterattacked, inflicting heavy casualties on the SDF. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 16 civilians killed in U.S. air strikes—the government in Damascus put the figure at over 70 killed and wounded—and combat deaths at 12 for the SDF and 19 for ISIS.

The move on Barghouz comes ahead of the trilateral Russia-Turkey-Iran summit set for Sochi, Russia on Feb. 14. Russian diplomacy in preparation for the conference continues to be intense, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meeting with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in Ankara yesterday, while Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet separately with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in addition to the trilateral meeting. The three countries have been the “Astana process” guarantors of the ceasefire in Syria since 2017. The Iran-Israel conflict in Syria is not on the agenda for the Feb. 14 meeting, but looms large over any Syria settlement; thus Putin is also scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Feb. 21.

The first item on the agenda for the Sochi summit is what happens in northern Syria after the U.S. troops’ withdrawal. Part of Moscow’s objective is the restoration of Syrian sovereignty over the country east of the Euphrates, including bringing the Syrian army back to the Turkish border—an objective which, so far, Ankara objects to. According to a Feb. 12 report in Al Monitor, Russia may be amenable to an alternative arrangement, provided that—like the de-escalation zones in western Syria—it is temporary.

The more difficult problem that the summit will have to deal with, however, might be Idlib province, where Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS)—essentially al-Qaeda in Syria—is mostly in control, contrary to the September 2018 agreement between Putin and Turkish President Erdogan, which averted a Syrian army assault on the province. Reuters reported yesterday that in a joint statement, Shoigu and Akar spoke of “the need in particular to take decisive measures to ensure security in the Idlib demilitarized zone.” It said that, “Despite provocations, we underlined the importance and need to continue partnerships between our two countries’ intelligence and military forces to establish peace, and to support stability in Idlib.”