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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 35 August 18, 2018

Helsinki Summit’s positive fallouts on Syria

Thursday 16 August 2018, by M K Bhadrakumar

In the debris of the Trump-Putin summit at Helsinki on July 16, the understanding reached on the Syrian conflict stands out as a positive outcome. The steady improvement in the politico-military situation in Syria and the easing of rivalries involving the external parties bears this out. Interestingly, a Xinhua report with Damascus dateline on Sunday (August 5) highlights this happy outcome of the Helsinki summit, citing Syrian experts.

The big picture is that there seems to be an understanding between Washington and Moscow that in the interests of the stabilisation of Syria, the Assad administration regains control of the entire country.

Secondly, having realised that the regime-change agenda in Syria has floundered, the US and other Western powers see the need to secure their interests through negotiations with Russia. The Russians not only spearheaded virtually all the initiatives so far to strike deals with the rebel groups (and thereby avoided use of military force as far as possible to ‘liberate’ territories from rebel occupation) but also acted as a ‘bridge’ between the Syrian Government and rebel groups. Indeed, the Russian credibility as reliable negotiators and guarantors has soared. Thirdly, what emerges in the downstream of the Helsinki summit is that the US desires to withdraw forces from Syria while maintaining its interests in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria.

The above broad trends find refection in the developments through the past three-week period both in southern and northern Syria. Thus, the situation on Syria’s southern border with Israel, which had assumed dangerous proportions, has calmed down on the lines that Russian President Vladimir Putin had outlined at the press conference with President Trump in Helsinki on July 16.

That is to say, the terrorist groups controlling the border region with Golan Heights have been vanquished, Syrian forces have gained control of Quneitra province (including the border crossing with Golan Heights) and, most importantly, on August 2, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force returned to its positions on the line of separation between Syria and the Israeli-occupied territories in the Golan Heights (which it had to leave in 2014 following Israeli pressure tactic to create conditions for Israel’s covert nexus with the terrorist groups.)

Besides, Russian Military Police has also been deployed to Quneitra as guarantors. All in all, suffice to say, the most dangerous front in the conflict has calmed down appreciably in a matter of a fortnight since the Helsinki summit. Similarly, in northeastern Syria, which is dominated by the Kurdish militia (supported by the US), there are new stirrings. Presumably with the knowledge and concurrence of their US mentors, Kurdish groups have begun talks with Damascus to negotiate the future of their traditional homelands in northeastern regions. The Kurdish groups have claimed that an agreement has been reached with Damascus “to draw a roadmap that would lead to a democratic, decentralised Syria”.

The Kurdish groups will explore the possibility of gaining some measure of local autonomy in the areas they control (a quarter of Syrian territory), whereas Damascus will prioritise regaining the territories. Clearly, further negotiations are expected and the advantage lies with the Syrian Government.

Looking ahead, these substantial achieve-ments and the fact that the Syrian Government has become more stable and is in greater control will give impetus to the efforts at finding a political solution to the conflict. Therefore, the fate of the terrorist groups ensconced in northern Latakia and Idlib in northwestern Syria bordering Turkey is fast becoming a residual issue.

Russia has given more time to Turkey to rein in these groups. The idea is to work out a deal for the terrorist groups to surrender, as has happened in southern Syria, so that fighting and bloodshed can be avoided. A deal may be in the works by the time the planned summit meeting of Turkey, Russia, France and Germany is held in Istanbul on September 7.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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