The situation in the Middle East is changing at an incredible speed. The things unbelievable yesterday, become reality today. Each of the events becomes part of a bigger picture, with the region gradually moving away from abyss to become a better place.
On March 1, Iraqi forces were reported to have taken control of the last major road out of western Mosul, preventing Islamic State (IS) militants from fleeing the city. The route leads to Tal Afar, another IS stronghold that is 40 km further west. They have since driven militants from the international airport, a military base, a power station and a number of residential areas. IS fighters began to flee. Total control over the city by Iraqi forces seems to be a matter of a few days, maybe hours.
Being almost defeated in Iraq, the IS has nowhere else to go but Syria – the country where they have just suffered a defeat, with Palmyra retaken by Syria’s government forces. Russia’s support has been crucial in the Syrian army's push. Raqqa, the last remaining stronghold of the IS, will be the place of the final battle the extremist group is doomed to lose as many influential actors want it to be wiped away from the earth.
Turkey has announced its intent to launch an offensive to retake Raqqa but only after taking control of Manbij, the town held by the Kurds-dominated Syria Democratic Forces (SDF). The parties were in for a fight to benefit the IS and other terror groups. The US was at a loss as to how to prevent a clash between the NATO ally and the Kurds – the force it relies on in the fight against the IS. That’s when Moscow stepped in to avoid the worst, using its unique position as a mediator. It managed to do what nobody thought was possible. The military council in Manbij said on March 2 it will hand over areas west of the flashpoint town to Syrian government troops, after an agreement brokered by Russia.
Now the town is in Arab hands and Turkey has no reason to attack it. Syria and Turkey are not at war.
The United States had promised Turkey that Kurdish forces would withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates, but it never happened. Now Russia did what America had failed to do.
As a result of Russia’s effective mediation, Turkey can double down on its plans to advance to Raqqa, while Syria’s government has greatly strengthened its position. Turkey’s President Erdogan has just said he is ready to fight the IS together with Russia. He is coming to Moscow on March 9. It means no clash between Turkey and Syria will take place.
Many things are changing for the Syrian government and it has been going on for some time. It’s not a coincidence that voices get louder, calling for inviting Syrian President Assad to the March 29 Arab Summit in Amman – five years after Syria was expelled from the 22-member organization. Russia, Jordan and Egypt are applying efforts to reconcile the Arab community with the Syrian government. Last month, Egypt’s parliamentary committee for Arab affairs called for the return of Syria to the Arab League. This would signify the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia which backed the Syrian rebels – something unthinkable some time ago.
In 2015, then US President Obama predicted Russia would get stuck in Syria’s quagmire. He appears to have been wrong. Thanks to Russia’s involvement, one can see the light at the end of the tunnel to make the quagmire a thing of the past.
Moscow can facilitate the process of Iran joining with Arab states in the effort to reach agreement on Syria, bringing it to some mutual understanding with Saudi Arabia. Not much has been reported about some recent events of special significance. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Kuwait and Oman on February 15. Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir made a trip to Iraq on February 25, to be received by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi. The trend is visible – Shia and Sunni are on speaking terms again and they are discussing something very important. It would have sounded incredible a short time ago but these are the facts.
All these events and emerging trends are taking place against the background of the ongoing UN-brokered Geneva talks on peaceful settlement in Syria. Here too we have an unexpected turn of events – the Syrian opposition seeks to meet with Russian officials!
According to Paul Vallely, a retired US Army Major General and senior military analyst for Fox News, Russia-US consultations on Syria are to start in two months after the presidents hold a summit. He said Russia is to play a key part in any scenario.
The recent days have literally shaken the Middle East. So many unexpected things happen to push things forward. Right in front of our eyes the impossible becomes possible.
As said before, Moscow is in a unique position to act as an intermediary and it plays its role aptly to achieve tangible results. If the current trend continues in the same direction, leading to the desired outcome, Russia’s effort will go down in history as an extraordinary achievement of military success combined with effective diplomacy.