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The road to Damascus passes through Moscow

Image credit: Alessandra Kocman

Image credit: Alessandra Kocman

The recent fall of Aleppo has been earmarked as a turning point in the six-year-old civil war in Syria. Despite extensive publicity in the social media condemning daily atrocities, superior force was finally rewarded, the rebellion in East Aleppo crushed and a major historical city partially destroyed.  Accountability for the crimes was not forthcoming. Compassion fatigue set in despite constant warnings by the UN. Major western powers seemed at a loss as to how to deal with this unfolding disaster.

Will the present situation provide a new opportunity to forge a way ahead? With significant changes in western political leadership either under way or possible in the near future what are the prospects? Are western countries to be reduced to bystanders? Will regional powers with Russia in the driving seat shape the future of this strategically important country?

Western countries missed their opportunity

The interests of the US, the EU states as well as the Sunni Arab countries advocating for the replacement of Assad would have been better served if conditions on the ground had been created to enable the armed opposition to be in a position of strength at the outset of negotiations. The Assad regime would have had to negotiate seriously. The remaining population in Syria, including the minorities, would have gradually realised that the Assad era was drawing to an end, thus increasing the pressure on the regime to compromise. This situation occurred several times in the past, notably in July 2012 after the bombing of the military security headquarters in Damascus and again in summer of 2015 when the armed opposition was threatening the Alawite homeland in Latakia.

Indeed, in 2012 the rebels were suffering less from the infiltration of foreign radical groups and the Islamic state (IS) had not yet appeared on the scene. As the situation escalated and radicalisation set in, these opportunities diminished, especially when the regime released radical Muslims from prison attempting to give credibility to its claim that it was fighting terrorists. Moreover, the efforts of Western countries and Sunni Arab states to assist the armed opposition were insufficient to turn the tide. A comprehensive peace plan, backed up if necessary by force, was lacking along the lines set out in a security policy brief of January 2014, published by the Egmont Institute and entitled ‘Syria: a roadmap for a sustainable political settlement’.

Russia plays its cards

The US’ reluctance to intervene militarily and the threat facing the regime in the summer of 2015 induced Russia, which traditionally has close ties to the Syrian regime, to intervene with a massive bombing campaign. It proved to be a ‘game changer’ that modified the balance of power on the ground in favour of the Assad regime. Having created the necessary conditions on the ground and organised a country-wide ceasefire (excluding Islamic State, former al-Nusra and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Forces or Peshmerga (PYG)) – which is now partially being observed – Moscow set about relaunching the roadmap to peace in accordance with UNSC resolution 2254 of December 2015. This conference is scheduled to start this month in Astana, followed by UN supervised peace talks in Geneva in February. After 6 months a transitional government with full executive powers is to be set up, followed within a year by a new constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections under UN supervision.

Turkey and Iran are closely associated

Moscow took the precaution to closely associate Turkey, a country backing the opposition, as well as Iran in this effort. Thus, Ankara was involved in the ceasefire and the convening of the Astana conference. In the past, Turkey consistently pursued an anti-Assad policy together with other Sunni countries. However, its main concern today is the success of the PYG, which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in rolling back Islamic State and subsequently laying claim to areas bordering on Turkey. Ankara fears the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria.

Tehran has invested extensively in propping up the Assad regime, not only as an advisor but also with arms and Shia militias (e.g. Hezbollah), thus playing a vital role on the ground. It acted as an intermediary in the summer of 2015 to secure Russia’s military intervention, was also involved in the evacuation efforts in East Aleppo and coordinated with Russia and Turkey in obtaining a country-wide ceasefire and restarting the diplomatic track. Iran wants to keep the arms corridor through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon open in the struggle against Israel.

Regime emboldened and opposition disheartened

Consequently, Assad has reasserted control over the ‘useful’ part of Syria; that is the urbanised backbone of the country (i.e. Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo). He will now focus on other areas under rebel control such as the border with Jordan, pockets of resistance around Damascus and Idlib where the al-Qaeda linked former al-Nusra front is strongly implanted. Taking over Idlib will provoke less reaction from the international community since radical Muslim groups are in control there. However, war fatigue, a crippled economy and depleting resources are weighing on the Syrian war effort.

The armed opposition is severely weakened. It has lost its main territorial gains and the other strongholds seem to be of little use to turn the tide. It has paid the price for its divisiveness, half-hearted support from foreign sponsors and the lack of a credible alternative, backed up by a strong charismatic leader able to mobilise external support. However, resistance will continue possibly in the form of ‘hit-and-run’ tactics and sabotage. It will continue to benefit from the support of the Sunni states with arms and finance. Their impact on an eventual outcome will be modest.

Will the negotiating process get off the ground?

Russia and Turkey, supporters of opposite sides, are the linchpins of this process. By all accounts it will be an uphill struggle with multiple interruptions following violations of the ceasefire. The Syrian government is determined to reclaim all areas held by the rebels, particularly in the Damascus region where a severe water supply crisis erupted. These violations will lead to withdrawals by the armed opposition from talks. Not only will both countries have to exert maximum pressure on the parties but if negotiations are to prosper concessions will have to be made in an effort to carry the process forward.  Recently, Ankara has reduced its anti-Assad rhetoric and Moscow agreed to exclude the PYG from the nation-wide ceasefire. In the future, Russia will have to loosen its ties further to the Syrian Kurds whereas Turkey will have to accept a role for Assad.

The new US administration, intent on rooting out Islamic State, is likely to look for an arrangement with Russia –  one that respects Moscow’s dominant role. However, the anti-Iran bias of the Trump team suggests that Washington might try and drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, bearing in mind that Russia seeks to protect its interests in Syria and pursue the diplomatic track.  A compromise might be that Assad can remain in power for the time being. Eventually he would be replaced by another Alawite. How this scenario would play out is not yet clear. Furthermore, will Assad willingly fall in line if he continues to enjoy support from a critical mass of the population in Syria and his government remains intact? Finally, will the opposition and their foreign backers endorse such a plan after all their sacrifices and efforts? Thus, many uncertainties obscure the future.

How about Islamic State?

The main objective of Islamic State is the establishment of a caliphate with Raqaa as its capital rather than the removal of Assad. The chances are that Islamic State will eventually – as in Iraq – be rolled back, even if the threat is unlikely to be totally eradicated soon. All parties are interested in eliminating Islamic State, including the Assad regime which wants to totally control Syria. A pivotal moment will be the recapture of Raqaa. So as not to exacerbate further the tensions between the Kurds and the Turks, and with respect for the majority Arab population in Raqaa, it should be the Arab contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rather than the Peshmerga fighters that should liberate this city. The US, a supporter of the Syrian Kurdish fighters, can play an intermediary role.

Can the EU make its weight felt?

Since integration in the military sphere is not a realistic prospect soon, the major member states have occupied the diplomatic limelight. This in no way belittles the significant efforts deployed by the EU institutions in damage control (e.g. migration, terrorism and development aid). Hopefully, if the diplomatic track were to gain momentum the EU, drawing on its vast experience and expertise, and in line with its global strategy on security and defence, will be able to contribute substantially to a settlement.


Vol. 9, No. 1 (2017)

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