Russia may impose its will on Syria as West struggles to contain coronavirus - analyst

Russia may drive forward its plans in Syria as the West struggles with the deadly coronavirus outbreak, U.S.-Arab relations specialist Dania Koleilat Khatib wrote for Arab News.

"While the West is scrambling to manage the coronavirus pandemic and Syria is not on its radar, Russia might find an opportunity to revive the stalled Astana talks - the parallel course to the Geneva process - and to impose new realities on the ground that can dictate the future of Syria," Khatib said.

Turkey, Russia and Iran are joint sponsors of the Astana peace talks, which began seeking a resolution for the Syrian conflict in 2017. Turkey and Russia signed a separate agreement in Sochi in 2018 to prevent a Syrian government assault on the rebel-held province of Idlib, where Turkey has troops stationed. But the escalation in Syria has crippled ongoing peace processes.

"However, now that the international environment allows, Russia may be encouraged to take a step further and seek to bridge the differences between the three lead actors in the Syrian conflict," she said.

Russia wants to end the Syrian civil war by helping Syrian President Bashar Assad take control of the country and gaining international support for rejecting a political transition that might oust Assad in the post-war era.

The Syrian government's latest Russian-backed offensive on the country's last rebel-held province of Idlib, marking the worst humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war, was part of such efforts.

But the offensive was severely criticised by the West as some one million civilians were displaced and have been living in dire conditions near the Turkish border since December as Russia-backed Syrian government forces intensified an offensive to seize territory from Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

"Coronavirus has given Assad the perfect opportunity. He started to accelerate his attempts on Idlib as news of the outbreak in Europe started emerging. Now that Europe and the United States are at the centre of the virus crisis, Assad can have a free hand," the analyst said.