Russia’s Syria Pivot Continues at Astana Peace Talks
Two days of talks between the Assad regime and Syrian rebels concluded today in Astana, Kazakhstan. The conference was organized by Russia and backed by Turkey and Iran; it concluded with a joint statement in which the three countries committed to establishing a “trilateral commission” to monitor and enforce the nationwide ceasefire in effect in Syria. Several rebel delegates told reporters they were disappointed by the communiqué, which they said legitimizes Iran’s role in Syria and will not be a credible enforcement mechanism to stop attacks by regime forces.
Russia continued its pivot toward diplomacy at the talks, but on its own terms. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen flagged a couple telling reports on Twitter: As the talks began, the Russian Reconciliation Center reported that it is “concerned” by regime violations of the ceasefire. Rozen noted that it was the first time she had seen Russia acknowledge violations by pro-Assad forces. Russian diplomats were also reportedly frustrated with Iranian and regime representatives who referred to rebels as “terrorists,” a blanket term Russian officials were more than willing to adopt during the Aleppo offensive.
Russia now has what it wants most in Syria. The Russian intervention has shored up the regime and secured its control of Aleppo, Damascus, and the regime’s core territory along the coast. It has raised the stakes for the rebels’ foreign supporters who have been set on overthrowing the regime, and now even Turkey accepts that Bashar al-Assad may outlast the war. Moscow has an ally in Damascus deeply indebted to its patronage and it is cashing in. Last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new long-term basing agreement that would allow Russian forces to continue to use a Syrian airbase in Latakia and a port in Tartus for the next 50 years. The deal will also allow Russia to expand the naval facility to dock nuclear submarines and larger ships, including its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov.
Six years ago, Russia’s access to Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East seemed to be slipping away. Its intervention in Syria has at least retained its access to the Mediterranean and preserved its only Arab ally. Moscow is now looking to end the war and lock down its strategic position.
Syrian peace talks planned by the United Nations will resume in Geneva on February 8.
Iraqi Forces Take Control of Eastern Mosul, U.S. Role Complicated by Trump’s Comments
After months of grueling street-to-street battles, the Iraqi military has taken control of the half of Mosul east of the Tigris River. Troops are now consolidating their control of the area and, as shown in this France 24 video of French coalition forces, clearing booby traps and tunnels. The battle to retake the city was launched 100 days ago, in October, and got bogged down in November. Iraqi forces made a renewed push in December that brought them to the banks of the river. In a remarkable story for the Wall Street Journal, Ali Nabhan describes reuniting with Omar al-Tikriti as Iraqi forces entered the neighborhood of al-Shorta last week; Tikriti, Nabhan’s best friend since childhood, has lived under the Islamic State’s occupation in Mosul for the past two years.
Military planners said recently that they believe many of the Islamic State’s leaders in the area have already been killed and that the group’s resources in Mosul are being depleted. Still, only half of the city has been liberated and the western part of the city poses new challenges, including streets too narrow for armored vehicles.
President Trump did not discuss the Mosul offensive in his first several days in office, but mentioned Iraq during his remarks at the CIA on Saturday. “If we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place,” he said. “So we should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance.” The comments have prompted predictable outrage among Iraqis. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Andrew Exum wrote in The Atlantic, “You also don’t have to be one of the several thousand Americans deployed to Iraq to understand how the line about taking Iraq’s oil will go down there. Trump’s rhetoric along these lines was a problem when he was a candidate. Now that he is the president, Iran’s militias and their media will have a field day, putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.” (Full disclosure: Exum was my boss at Center for a New American Security back when I was a naive intern new to DC.)
BuzzFeed’s Borzou Daragahi asked around on Sunday and found Iraqis were indeed palpably angry about the comments. “There’s no way Trump could take the oil unless he launched a new military front and it be a new world war,” a photographer with the Popular Mobilization Units told him. “We kept our ammunition and weapons from the time the Americans left for fighting ISIS. But once ISIS is gone we will save our weapons for the Americans,” another said.
Israel Lifts Settlement Restrictions, Netanyahu to Visit Washington in February
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the White House next month. President Trump invited Netanyahu to come to Washington during a phone conversation on Sunday in which the two men discussed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The prime minister expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
Shortly before the call, Netanyahu lifted restrictions on settlement construction in East Jerusalem. "There is no longer a need to coordinate construction in the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. We can build where we want and as much as we want,” Netanyahu said in a government statement. "My vision is to enact sovereignty over all the settlements.” On Tuesday, the Israeli government authorized the construction of 2,500 new homes in the West Bank. However, Netanyahu postponed a vote on a controversial proposal to annex the Maale Adumim settlement near Jerusalem, saying that it should wait until after meetings with Trump. U.S. policy across recent administrations has consistently opposed the expansion or annexation of Israeli settlements and outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated concerns that Israeli settlement policy will continue to be an obstacle to a final status agreement, but Trump has expressed willingness to break with this policy.
Netanyahu’s relationship with the White House is thawing just as two investigations of potential ethics violations heat up. Police have questioned Netanyahu and members of his family regarding accusations that they accepted gifts of cigars, champagne, Mariah Carey concert tickets, and gourmet meals in violation of Israeli laws prohibiting politicians from accepting large gifts. A second investigation is being pursued regarding allegations that Netanyahu discussed trading support for legislation to curtail the circulation of a popular newspaper, Israel Today, in exchange for more favorable coverage in a rival paper, Yedioth Ahronoth. Israeli media reported over the weekend that police are close to recommending an indictment in one of the cases. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, but as Gregg Carlstrom notes for The Atlantic, the investigations have placed him on the defensive just as things seemed to fall into place for him politically.