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IDSA COMMENT

The State of the State of Syria

January 02, 2017

Significant developments took place regarding Syria in December 2016. The partial cease-fire brokered, or rather, brokered and imposed, by Russia and Turkey, with Iran’s concurrence, on President Basher al Assad and a part of his foes, known as ‘moderates’, might mark a turning point in Syria’s tortuous and painful journey since 2011. Left to himself, Assad would have preferred to carry on with the military operations, heavily and crucially supported by Russia and Iran, and recover more territory. At present, he controls only the western part, which has a high population density and greater wealth than the rest of the country. Even Damascus is not safe as recent attacks on the Russian Embassy have proved. The ‘moderate’ rebels also would have preferred to get more arms and keep fighting.

The Cease-Fire

This is the third cease-fire in less than 12 months following the aborted ones in February and September 2016. Those two were begotten by long negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and were announced with much fanfare. The US was conspicuously absent this time around, marking President Putin’s intention to side-line the outgoing Obama Administration. We might presume that Putin would have kept the President-elect Trump in the loop.

The cease-fire came into force at 2200 hours GMT on December 29 and, despite some violations, it has held so far. There is also an agreement on monitoring the cease-fire for which the guarantors are Russia (for the Syrian government’s observance) and Turkey (for the rebels covered by the cease-fire). Russia and Turkey do not have identical plans for Syria, but they have decided to work together respecting, to the extent possible, each other’s primary goals.

The ‘moderates’ who have signed into the cease-fire were forced to sign up within 48 hours. The support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar has dried up and, in any case, such support in the shape of lethal and non-lethal supplies has to come through Turkey. Obviously, the ‘moderates’ cannot resist Turkey’s pressure.

Apart from the agreements on the cease-fire and on monitoring it, there is a third document on holding talks on a political transition. The ‘moderates’ have signed it and the version they received had a reference to the earlier talks held in Geneva in June 2012 where the approved document contained a provision for a transitional governing council with full executive powers. The interpretation of the ‘moderates’ is that Assad was not part of that council. But, there was no agreement on Assad’s role in Geneva. Nor is there any agreement now. The Assad government signed the document after deleting the reference to the transitional governing council. In short, there is no text agreed to by Assad and his foes.

Reaction of US and its allies

Obviously, by the timing carefully chosen, Putin wanted to administer a parting snub to President Obama who found it difficult to deal with Moscow and took the lead in demonizing his Russian counterpart after the latter annexed the Crimea in 2014. Mark Toner, spokesman for the Department of State, reflected the Obama administration’s frustration when he said, “We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties.” There has not been any comment from London, Paris, or Berlin, probably because the West feels slighted at being excluded from the talks. The Russian Embassy in London did an online poll asking for the reason for the silence of the Foreign Office and half the respondents said that it was ‘jealousy’.

UN Security Council Resolution on the cease-fire

On December 31, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution (2336 of 2016) with slight amendments to the text proposed by Russia. The Council, instead of endorsing, “welcomes and supports the efforts of Russia and Turkey”. The original resolution referred to the political transition talks in Astana from mid-January onwards. The amended one made it clear that the Astana talks will be an important step ‘ahead’ of the resumption of talks under UN auspices in Geneva on 8 February 2017.

It may be recalled that the UN’s Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was excluded from the talks leading to the cease-fire. One reason for the exclusion might be that Washington would have learnt everything about the negotiations through the UN and might have even derailed the talks from which it was excluded. At the same time, Moscow has expressed the hope that the UN would take part in the Astana talks. Obviously, the UN will not be chairing the talks.

The complications of the cease-fire

It was mentioned earlier that what has been agreed to is a partial cease-fire. There is some lack of clarity as to which parties are included and which excluded. The Russian defence ministry says that seven of the "moderate opposition formations" have signed the agreement: Faylaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Thuwwar Ahl al-Sham, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, Jaysh Idlib and Jabhah al-Shamiya. Obviously, these names do not mean much to outside observers, except that they have been, with one or two exceptions, classified as ‘moderates’ by the West and their Arab allies who have been lending support to them. What is known is that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam are powerful Islamist groups that Russia has previously described as terrorist organizations. Incidentally, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham told Reuters news agency that the group had "reservations" and had not signed the deal.

Now comes the question of exclusion. The announcement by the Syrian Army says that the cease-fire will not cover “the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups (outlawed in Russia) and also the affiliated armed groups.” The last six words require parsing, which can be done only later as the cease-fire proceeds. All that one can say now is that “also” is redundant. As already pointed out, there is no agreed text on the talks for the political transition.

Turkey’s crucial role and its long-term goals

Turkey, the NATO member with the second largest military in the alliance, has moved closer to Moscow and away from Washington. Turkey decided some time back that it could take care of its interest only by working closely with Russia. For his part, Putin was more than willing to promote discord between Ankara and Washington.

Out of the 80,000 and odd rebels in Syria fighting Assad and occasionally among themselves, about 60,000 are covered by this agreement. Turkey has influence over these 60,000 as it has been aiding some of them and permitting foreign donors to send military aid through its territory to the rest. With the drying up of aid from Saudi Arabia (hardly any aid in 2016) and Qatar (hardly any aid for the last six months), Turkey’s clout over the ‘moderates’ has understandably increased.

Turkey has made noises about its wish to see Assad leave the scene, but by now it is clear that Turkey too has accepted that Assad is too well entrenched to be pushed away by it and its allies. In any case, the goal of removing Assad is less important than conducting some military operations in Syria near the border with Turkey. Such operations can be conducted only with Russia’s consent and Erdogan has understood that. These operations have two goals, the more important of which is to prevent the Kurds in Syria from controlling territory that would enable them to work with the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Workers Party) and the YPG (Yekineyen Parastina Gel, People’s Defence Units) in Turkey. This goal is within reach. The other goal is to defeat the IS (Islamic State), especially in the area adjoining to the border. YPG is an ally of the US in the fight against the IS. One has to wait and see how the Trump Administration addresses this disagreement with Turkey.

Will the cease-fire hold?

What are the chances of success for the cease-fire and efforts towards a political settlement combined with a united onslaught on the IS? While it would be foolish to offer a prediction, the cease-fire appears to have, for the time being, a better chance than the two previous ones. It may be recalled that Kerry lacked support from the Pentagon for the September 2016 cease-fire.

However, Assad’s military has already broken the cease-fire in Wadi Barad Valley northwest of Baghdad. It has been reported that the rebels added diesel to the springs in the valley, an important source of water to the four million population in Damascus. Syrian forces along with Hezbollah fighters have gained ground in the fight continuing. All cease-fires are fragile, but the ones in Syria even more so.

What next?

Assuming that over time IS loses all the territory it has in Iraq/Syria, would that mean the dawn of an era of peace and tranquility for Syria? No. The liberation of Mosul, when and if it happens, will beget much tension, and is likely to lead to fighting among the Iraqi Shias, the Iraqi Sunnis, the Iraqi Kurds, and Turkey over territory.

Even after losing territory, IS would be able to carry out terrorist strikes, as it seems to have done at the night club in Istanbul on the New Year night killing more than 35 people. IS is a mind-set that can survive the loss of territory.

Trump has made it clear that his primary interest in Syria is to destroy the IS. He is prepared to work with Russia. Given that, it is likely that the emergence of a Putin-Trump combination would make it easier for the IS to get recruits to fight against the ‘crusaders’?

The Kurds now control much territory in Syria and the Kurds in Iraq have a degree of autonomy. Will the Kurds in Syria agree to anything less than the type of autonomy their Iraqi counterparts enjoy? Will Assad agree to grant such autonomy?

Assad is vulnerable as he is crucially dependent on the military support of Moscow and Tehran. But he is safe so long as these two capitals support him. The key question is whether some time in 2017 Putin would agree with Trump to withdraw the life-support from Assad as part of a larger deal involving Syria and more? If that were to happen, Trump can boast that by making a deal he did what Obama who had publicly asked Assad to step down as early as August 2011 failed to do.

Teheran’s support for Assad is stronger than that of Moscow’s. But, even for Iran, retaining Assad is not the primary interest. It wants a corridor to Lebanon to send aid to the Hezbollah and it wants to have that corridor through an area with a Shia majority population. If Iran were to gain such a corridor, it might agree to a grand bargain that includes the removal of Assad.

In short, there are many imponderables as of now, and it cannot be definitively said that the present cease-fire will necessarily take Syria to a peaceful destiny. But, the cease-fire would reduce the killing and as such should be welcomed by all. All told, Putin has demonstrated imaginative diplomacy by the timing of the cease-fire, by bringing in Turkey, by keeping the US and its allies out at this stage, and preparing for a grand bargain with Trump. By not expelling US diplomats in retaliation to Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, Putin has earned the good will of Trump.

2017 might turn out better for Syria than 2016, partly because Washington might adopt a more consistent policy on Syria and is likely to stop demonizing Putin and start working with him, and partly because the ‘moderates’, ‘softened up’ by the recent military successes of Assad, may prove to be less adamant.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.