While Russia and Turkey pound Al Bab in the north, Iraqi troops, supported by the U.S.-led coalition, are squeezing ISIS out of their stronghold in Mosul. Photo: Rebel fighters ride a military vehicle, as they advance towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria, Jan. 15, 2017.Reuters
On Jan. 23 Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, will host the first talks in almost a year between the Syrian government and the armed opposition. The Astana talks were convened by Russia and the two other regional powers involved in Syria’s civil war, Turkey and Iran. On Dec. 30 a truce between the government and the opposition was declared, but it didn’t pertain to the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
The Astana meeting will also include United Nations’ representatives, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. was also invited, although Iran was at first strongly against this.
Together with Russia, Iran is a major supporter of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, but its position is more intransigent. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused the U.S. and Saudi Arabia of "supporting terrorists," and spoke against their participation in the talks. Iran also criticized Turkey for illegally sending troops into Syria.
Russia does not have serious influence on Iran, believes Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East scholar and expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Iran is aspiring to leadership in a strategically important region and is not willing to cede it to anyone, including Russia," Malashenko told Kommersant.
The peacemakers must gather as many sides as possible if they want the talks to be successful.
"How can you solve the Syrian conflict without the Kurds? Without the Americans? Without the Persian Gulf countries?" said Leonid Isaev, a senior professor at the Higher School of Economics' department of political science, and a scholar of Arab affairs. "If talks involve only the government, the opposition and the Russia-Turkey-Iran troika, then the conflict won’t be resolved."
For now Russia finds it difficult to restrain Turkey and Iran from open hostilities, said Isaev. Thus, it’s unclear whether the Astana talks will result in a breakthrough.
Although Turkey is antagonistic to Iran, it’s improving relations with Russia. On Jan. 18 Russian and Turkish planes bombed ISIS militants near the city of Al Bab in Syria's north. This was their first joint military operation in the Syrian war.
"Al Bab is a serious problem, and the Turks have been besieging the city for over a month but they didn’t have enough firepower; but now, Russia's air force has been very helpful," said Victor Nadein-Raevsky, an expert on Turkish affairs and a scholar at the RAS Institute of World Economy and International Relations. He added that improved relations between Russia and Turkey will not only help drive ISIS out of the region, but will also show that the two countries have found a common policy on Syria.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State is fighting on all fronts. While Russia and Turkey pound Al Bab in the north, Iraqi troops, supported by the U.S.-led coalition, are gradually squeezing them out of their stronghold in Mosul. Leonid Isaev said Assad will soon join the war against ISIS, moving a part of his troops to Palmyra from Aleppo, which the government liberated in December.
Despite this development, ISIS is in fact in a dire situation and is fighting frantically to survive. The militants are attacking the city of Deir ez-Zor, the last enclave controlled by the government in the country's east. Map of Syria. Source: Onestopmap/RBTH
"It’s likely that Russia will support the new attack on Palmyra with airstrikes," said Isaev. "It’s a question of reputation; losing the city in December 2016 was a huge failure."
Now that the militants have captured the ancient city for a second time in the Syrian war, they continue destroying it with a vengeance. According to Syrian media, the militants already damaged the amphitheater where last May Russia held a concert dedicated to the city’s liberation.
Despite this development, ISIS is in fact in a dire situation and is fighting frantically to survive. The militants are attacking the city of Deir ez-Zor, the last enclave controlled by the government in the country's east. Arab press reported that Islamists are advancing, capturing district after district from the government. But this apparent success only masks major losses elsewhere.
"ISIS is facing significant losses on the battlefield and is losing territory," Isaev concluded. "It is important for them to take Deir ez-Zor in order to guarantee themselves a fortified base and to act more compactly, without overextending the front."
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