Ankara Summit, chemical attacks and US-led strikes on Syria - What next? - ANALYSIS - EXCLUSIVE | Eurasia Diary -

19 January, Saturday

Ankara Summit, chemical attacks and US-led strikes on Syria - What next? - ANALYSIS - EXCLUSIVE

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In the wake of Ankara Summit that brought together the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran on April 2-4, there were use of chemical weapons claims on April 7 despite the fact that Russia and Syria blamed rebel groups. On April 14 the US-led allies launched air strikes on Syria in response to the use of chemical attack. Some claimed that the use of the chemical weapons aimed at undermining the consequences of Ankara Summit that was held without the West, as Israel insisted on the U.S to keep its forces in Syria for a while. 
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Political analyst with the Centre for International Relations, commentator and historian Bruno Surdel stated for Eurasia Diary that the purely tactical nature of the Russo-Turkish alliance came to light once again almost immediately after the Astana summit. Already on April 9 – so only two days after the alleged chemical attack in Syrian city of Douma  - Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov irritated Ankara with his expectation that the Turks should hand over Afrin to the regime in Damascus. In Lavrov’s opinion, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan had never said that Turkey wants to occupy (or annex) the north-western Syrian region, liberated recently from the PKK-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG). Bearing in mind that exactly on the same day, President Erdogan had a phone conversation with his Russian counterpart – Putin, this was a strong message not only to Turkey but also to the world on the true character of the Russia – Turkey relationship. 
Bruno Surdel, PhD
Analyst with the Centre for International Relations (CIR) -  Warsaw, Poland
And on the very next day, the Turkish President stated that those who had committed the ‘massacre’ “will pay a heavy price” – so he didn’t accept the Russian narrative relating to that event. Furthermore, on 14 April, Erdogan welcomed the US-led missile strikes and directly blamed Bashar al-Assad for another use of poisonous gas on his fellow citizens. 
According to the political scientist, all the developments around the alleged chemical attack in Douma on April 7, and the following missile strikes conducted by the USA, UK and France look like a tragic farce. In Russia’s Foreign Minister’s own words, the Douma incident was staged by the ‘terrorists’, and it’s worth noting that, General Valery Gerasimov – the Chief of the Russian General Staff – reportedly ‘predicted’ already in March this year that this kind of ‘provocation’ was going to happen soon. Indeed, his ominous words materialised very soon. Either the Russians knew well ahead that a chemical attack would take place and Gerasimov’s statements were a cynical manipulation to put the blame on the USA and anti-Assad rebels, or they genuinely obtained this kind of intelligence on the attack to be ‘staged’. If the latter were the fact, the question is why the UN security team and the inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) got a rather unwelcome reception in Douma? 
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Actually, a truly intriguing point is why the suspected use of poisonous gas occurred just after the trilateral Turkey – Russia – Summit in Ankara. Sincerely, there is not an easy answer but there are two possible solutions to that puzzle:
  • first, somebody had schemed to ruin its results;
  • and the second (among many others) option, a probably more plausible one: Assad didn’t put much value on that summit and was really in a hurry to eliminate the last pockets of resistance in Eastern Ghouta before the celebrations of the National Day.
Expert said that we will probably never know for sure what had exactly happened because all the potential ‘evidence’ is literally evaporating before our very eyes – with a little help from Damascus and Moscow. One thing needs to be made clear here: not even Russia’s President does exert the full control over Damascus’ actions.
In the Syrian government’s propaganda, even the Western missile strikes were ‘successfully’ repelled as the Syrian air defences ‘intercepted’ 71 out of 103 missiles fired against Damascus military assets by the US, UK and France. So - indeed, Bashar al-Assad and the Russians/Iranians ‘won’ – they cleansed Douma of the government’s enemies and the Syrian regime announced it almost immediately after the Allied missile strikes. 
Now another puzzle 
President Putin decided not to escalate after the US-led strikes. Why? -The ‘Western’ missile strikes were - after the alleged chemical attack - inevitable but carefully planned and ‘negotiated’ with Moscow. US’ embattled president Trump demonstrated once again that - contrary to his naive predecessor Barack Obama - he respects his own ‘red lines’, especially when the ‘one time shot’ punishment imposed on Mr Bashar al-Assad doesn’t change anything on the ground so the Russians can tolerate it.
On the other hand, the world’s public opinion may draw conclusion (who knows?) that Putin punished somehow Assad for yet another use of poisonous gas against his fellow citizens – even if both of them reject the very occurrence of a chemical attack in Syrian Douma as a ‘provocation’. Interestingly, some days later, the US president suspended firing the (already scheduled) newest round of anti-Kremlin sanctions. Vladimir Putin actually cares much more (even if it seems otherwise) about US sanctions than about Trump’s moral/symbolic missile strikes on the Kremlin client’s assets in Syria. And the sanctions already in place really bite. The good example is how the sanctions started cutting the supply chain of the Russian aluminium giant Rusal overseas and have threatened its very operation abroad. No worries, however: the Kremlin’s friends in Western Europe will try their best to provide assistance to Rusal and other Russian companies affected by American sanctions; but this may prove a ‘mission impossible’.
Europe’s prompt condemnation and strategic and economic importance of Ghouta and Douma for the West and Russia
Bruno Surdel stressed that the protests and “strongest condemnations” are a kind of necessary ritual on the part of the West including the European Union. To be sure: yes, the governments there were genuinely horrified with a prospect of another Aleppo (taken back by the Syrian government in December 2016) and the terrible images coming from Eastern Ghouta. This is even more valid for very many people in the West. On the other hand, there are also people in Europe and in the USA who still support Assad. The problem is: who in the West really wants to die for Eastern Ghouta or has ever been ready to die for Syria? Not many such people and not only in the collective West but in other parts of the world too.
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Here are some points on the (not only) Western reaction to the alleged chemical attack in Douma and the general situation in Syria:
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the alleged chemical attack in Douma in strongest terms but refused to participate in the bombing it. It’s quite understandable: after WWII, Germany is unwilling to take part in any war, even where the cause appears to be ‘just’ and reasonable. After all, both - Chancellor Merkel’s party friends and coalition partners – are calling for a kind of ‘rapprochement’ with Putin rather than for any further escalation, keeping in mind German (not only social-democratic) economic ties with the Kremlin - threatened by the new US sanctions imposed on Russian oligarchs close to Putin. 
  • French President Macron had joined forces with US and UK to send a missile message that “France is back” and tried boosting his international standing just before the ‘expose’ he held at the European Parliament. Unfortunately (for him), Chancellor Merkel’s senior conservative party members are not very impressed with his Utopian vision of Europe. 
  • British Prime Minister Theresa May - tormented by the EU leaders’ Brexit arrogance - took (indirect) revenge on the Kremlin for poisoning Russia’s traitor and double agent – Skripal. 
  • American President Trump reportedly tried to persuade into a military action Muhammad bin Salman - the Saudi crown prince, who has warmed the ties with Israel in the face of the Iranian ‘expansion’ from Iraq to Syria, from Lebanon to Yemen. But ‘MBS’ is rather busy with the internal power-struggle, economic reforms, and the bombing of Yemen’s Houthi-occupied territory (with a little help from his US friends), so he has little appetite for bombing Syria: after all, he granted Trump’s America hundreds of billions of USD in military deals. 
But the Americans got immediate assistance from Israel who is waging its private war against Iran in Syria – bombing (rightly - for its own interests) Iranian assets in that country regularly, and waiting for this May’s anticipated US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Israel has some headaches with Putin but – anyway – the communication channels with Moscow are working well: the Kremlin’s interests in Syria are not identical with Iran’s regional ambitions.
Finally, speaking of the strategic importance of the region for the West or Russia, one should bear in mind that Russia is not interested in the kind of ‘reconstruction’ of Syria, where it would independently export gas or oil to Europe, or construction of any pipelines going via that country. Moscow doesn’t need any new competition in the energy sector even the slightest one. Russia now has neither will nor economic capacity to seriously engage in the reconstruction of Syria. Of course, the situation may change if they find a way to make a profitable business there and to somehow control the trade with Syrian gas and oil. 
However, the issue is that many gas and oil fields are located on the territories taken by US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (actually: YPG/PYD). The struggle for energy resources might be extremely fierce and tough as proven by the recent massacre by Americans of hundreds of Russian mercenaries - members of the ‘private’ Wagner military group in the Deir ez-Zour province. 
Political analyst concluded that the collective West and the European powers are interested in rebuilding a Syria which is independent of Russia and Iran – also to diversify the energy channels. But that task is impossible to accomplish in the near future. 
Farid Hasanov

*You can follow Bruno Surdel on Twitter: @BrunoSurdel

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