By Afro-Middle East Centre
Talks between the Syrian regime and opposition forces, held in Kazakhstan’s capital from 23 to 24 January, concluded with Russia, Turkey and Iran announcing their intention for a trilateral mechanism to monitor and enforce the ceasefire between regime forces and rebels. The talks aimed to build on the 30 December truce, which was brokered by Ankara and Moscow, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Delegations from armed opposition groups and the Syrian regime were meant to speak directly; however, this failed to materialise. The talks suggest the possibility of a diplomatic resolution for Syria in the future, but one which will favour the regime, and will not totally end the fighting.
The Astana talks highlighted the role of these three regional powers in Syria’s civil war, and the sidelining of the USA and Saudi Arabia; the former was invited as an observer, and the latter not at all. Astana did little to change the situation on the ground as regime forces continue attacking rebel fighters in Wadi Barada, near Damascus, while fighting between rebel groups broke out in Idlib, further weakening the opposition in the face of an assertive regime.
The nature of the Syrian civil war, with the involvement of a number of states supporting a range of actors, and the role of the Islamic State group (IS), has led to the failure of several UN-mandated peace talks. The organisers positioned the Astana talks as a basis for upcoming UN talks in Geneva, intended to cement the ceasefire while establishing a trajectory for future negotiations. The fall of Aleppo in December was a turning point in the conflict, and allowed the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, to claim victory and rubbish any attempts to exclude him from any transition process. Since Turkish and Russian support led to Asad’s success in Aleppo, they also took the diplomatic initiative. Their ceasefire deal was signed by Syria and seven major opposition groups. It was active in all areas not under IS control, and excluded UN-designated ‘terrorist’ groups, particularly IS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qa'ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). When the parties decided early January that the ceasefire was substantially holding, Russia and Turkey began preparations to host talks between the regime and opposition forces.
Differing expectations of the Astana talks threatened to collapse the dialogue before it has started. Asad expressed hope that the armed rebel groups will disarm in exchange for an amnesty deal. Opposition groups expected to the talks only to strengthen the ceasefire, leaving any discussion of Syria’s political future to Geneva. The ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey has been more successful than previous agreements between Russia and the USA, and the organisers hoped that excluding the USA from a pivotal role may invoke greater trust between participants. Washington’s involvement in the Syrian peace process has decreased not only due to Asad’s ascendency with Russian support or Iran wishing to exclude them from the process, but also as Obama’s presidency ended. Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem also spoke highly of the chance of success due to ‘strong guarantees’ from Moscow, calling the ceasefire a potential starting point for a political process.
Although all opposition groups that had signed the 30 December ceasefire had received invitations to Astana, the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, one of the larger rebel groups, did not attend, citing the fighting in Wadi Barada. The USA had insisted that the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, the largest group in the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces) be involved; Moscow remained silent while Ankara refused to consider the inclusion of either the PYD or its armed wing, the YPG, due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The SDF responded by announcing its rejection any decisions that would be made in Astana. Opposition groups are divided, and the loss of eastern Aleppo highlighted their weakened position. Turkey is the opposition’s major state ally; however, Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow forces opposition groups to question the usefulness of a diplomatic route that constrains their offensive options and increases tensions with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The current fighting between Fateh al-Sham and allies against Ahrar al-Sham and allies in Idlib highlights this tension among rebel factions.
The Astana talks were largely unproductive, and their primary impact emerged from discussions on the sidelinesbetween Russia, Turkey and Iran on strengthening the ceasefire. In their agreement to set up a trilateral mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, the parties agreed there could be no military solution in Syria, and that the conflict could only be resolved through compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Neither the Syrian regime nor the rebel delegation appeared satisfied by the outcome of the talks. The opposition protested Iran’s inclusion in monitoring the ceasefire and mediating the conflict, and refused to sign any agreement. The government, meanwhile, announced the continuation of an offensive in Wadi Barada despite the ceasefire and had recaptured all rebel villages within a week.
An agreement to extend the ceasefire is a shaky foundation for the UN-mandated talks in Geneva starting on 20 February. Further, the exclusion of up to two thirds of opposition groups does not provide the rebel delegation with a popular mandate. The exclusion of armed groups with alleged al-Qa'ida links has further divided the opposition while providing the regime with an excuse for violating the ceasefire. Iran’s commitment to the ceasefire is a positive step towards freezing the conflict. Ultimately, it seems that a diplomatic solution is on the horizon, with the main drivers being Russia, Turkey and Iran. It will likely be a resolution that sees the co-option of certain sections of the opposition into the government, and an agreement that Asad will remain in power until the next election, when he will gracefully exit.
The United Nations has suspended all aid convoys in Syria after its lorries were attacked by warplanes near Aleppo on Monday.
The attack came a few hours after the Syrian army declared an end to a week -long ceasefire. The United States has expressed outrage at an attack on an aid convoy near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
South African aid organisations have been lauded for their humanitarian efforts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict began with the Arab spring in 2011 and now has degraded into a civil war whereby there are many armed factions fighting for control. To give us more insight and to explain South Africa's humanitarian role in Syria is Afro-Middle East Centre Executive Director Naeem Jeenah.
The 13 December surrender agreement between rebel groups and the regime of President Bashar al-Asad marked a turning point in the five-year long Syrian conflict. Opposition demands for Asad to step down through a transition process now seem impractical and unachievable, mainly because the government now controls most urban areas. Further, the agreement’s relative success will empower its chief negotiators, Turkey and Russia, to reshape the conflict to suit their converging interests, which increasingly sees a role for Asad. The regime will, however, find it difficult to establish its sovereignty over the entire country as Turkish troops and rebel groups backed by Turkey and certain Gulf states – including Saudi Arabia and Qatar – consolidate in more rural areas. Significantly, the regime is now more empowered to pursue its aims, even when these do not fully coincide with the interests of its Russian ally.
Announced late Tuesday, the agreement allowed for rebels and civilians trapped in besieged East Aleppo to evacuate to other rebel controlled areas as regime forces regain control of the remains of the city. This completes the main thrust of the regime’s latest strategy, which aimed at consolidating control of large population centres across the country’s east-west spine, confining the rebellion to rural provinces. The government now controls Damascus in the south, Aleppo in the north, and the central Homs and Hama provinces – the areas many refer to as ‘useful Syria’. This means that any transitional agreement that excludes Asad – as the opposition and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia have been demanding – will not be possible, thus voiding a major demand of the rebellion.
Already, Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al –Thani, referred to the Syrian opposition’s calls for negotiations without any preconditions regarding Asad’s role. Further, although rebel groups control parts of the Aleppo governorate, much of Idlib, as well as areas in the south, their armed capabilities have been severely weakened, due in part to fears about their links with Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra). This relationship has made some governments, especially the USA and Jordan (which train and coordinate activities with the Southern Front rebel group) wary. Funding, even from Saudi Arabia, has thus been reduced, and some states, especially USA and Jordan, prefer to conclude agreements with the Syrian regime around combatting the Islamic State group and preventing a spillover into Jordan and Lebanon.
Shifting geopolitical interests have also influenced the conflict. Following Turkey’s apology to Russia over its downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015, a rapid rapprochement has occurred between the two states, and a convergence on Syria is emerging. In September the two countries agreed on Turkish use of Syrian airspace, and in October Turkey aligned its stance on Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham closer to that of Moscow. It is probable that Turkey’s recent troop deployment into Syria was endorsed by Moscow. Russia and Syria have virtually ignored Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria and its efforts to form a buffer zone up to the IS-controlled town of Al-Bab – in return for it limiting its support for rebel groups in east Aleppo.
Ankara’s redeployment of thousands of rebel fighters from Aleppo and its August capture of Jarabulus, in the north of the Aleppo governorate, in was a key factor influencing the Syrian regime’s ability to reimpose its siege on Aleppo in September. In recent months Ankara has attempted to negotiate a rebel withdrawal from east Aleppo, initially only for Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham fighters, thus allowing some opposition governance in the city, and later, following regime objections, for civilians and fighters belonging to other groups. This deal was key to the rapid fall of east Aleppo, and to the fact that Turkish-backed forces rather than the Kurdish YPG will likely be prominent in attempts to drive IS from Al-Bab. Turkey and the other major regional power with troops in Syria, Iran, have also been discussing Syria in the past three months, and have agreed to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Iran was not, however, directly involved in the surrender agreement negotiations, and has been accused by some as a spoiler, because of its demands that wounded civilians in the regime-supporting towns of Foua and Kefraya in Idlib governorate, which are besieged by rebels, also be evacuated, and by then supporting militia groups which have prevented many evacuation attempts from Aleppo. Iran has attempted a deal on these towns for the past eighteen months with Ahrar al-Sham. Its proposal was to engineer a population swap, with residents of these towns to be exchanged with Sunni residents of Zabadani and Madaya. This would consolidate the Shi'a presence in the area from Damascus to the Lebanese Beka'a Valley. Iran also demanded the bodies of slain militia fighters that it had sent to Syria, including members of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iraqi militias. It also demanded information about any fighters that had been taken prisoner.
The Turkey-Russia agreement stalled repeatedly, and although not part of the original Aleppo agreement, it now includes evacuation plans for Foua, Kefraya, and the parts of Madaya and Zabadani as well.Significantly, the USA and EU played no role in the recent surrender agreement, and initially were unaware of it.
With this reconfiguration in interests and power, Syria could be divided into zones of influence, allowing for some cooperation despite the divergences in the Russian, Iranian, and Turkish positions. The prominence of Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham in Idlib may complicate this plan, especially since Idlib directly borders Turkey, and because the group often coordinates with Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Turkey and some Gulf countries. Fissures in Ahrar al-Sham have already emerged, and a splinter group, Jaish Al-Ahrar, which is critical of the former’s reliance on Turkey and its supposed antagonism to Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, has been formed.
With Aleppo back in Syrian government control, Asad has gained the upper hand in the conflict over control of the state. However, the conflict is not about to end; it will probably continue at a lower intensity as the regime conducts operations in Idlib and other rebel-controlled regions, and because rebel groups will alter their tactics in favour of smaller insurgent operations. Many opposition groups may be forced to accept a political solution as their position further weakens, but it is unlikely the regime will allow the opposition autonomy over areas it currently controls. Earlier versions of the surrender agreement, which would have allowed for the maintenance of the east Aleppo local council, and which was accepted by Moscow and Ankara, was discarded because it was rejected by the regime. In many places opposition to the regime from citizens will endure, and not all rebel groups will accept such an eventuality, arguing that they cannot allow all their sacrifices to amount to nought.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The collapse of the recent Syrian ceasefire and resultant blame game being played by the USA and Russia is an indication of the complex nature of the Syrian crisis and more importantly indicates the interests and motivations of the ceasefire’s chief protagonists. Although violence lessened slightly during the four- to five-day armistice, its collapse points to the differing interests of the actors involved, and to the partiality of the supposed enforcers. The consequent Aleppo offensive has compounded this, illustrating that Russia will continue backing the Syrian regime, while the USA is more concerned about the Islamic State group (IS). Moreover, even Russia recently admitted that it is now impossible to bring ‘peace’ to the conflict arena.
Negotiated between Russia and the USA, neither the regime nor opposition groups fully endorsed the 9 September ceasefire, revealing a clearly erroneous assumption that the conflict is between two clearly identifiable sets of belligerents that could be restrained by their supposed patrons. Further, the agreement was not made public (though it was subsequently leaked), or even made available to the rebel groups that were to implement it, thus inhibiting its chances for success and undermining the already tenuous US influence. Moreover, the regime, though using limited aerial bombardment, utilised the ‘pause’ to consolidate and continued attacking areas in Aleppo, Homs and east Ghouta (east of the capital Damascus). Rebel groups were also accused of violations, especially in Aleppo, although these were mostly less intense than those of the regime. The violations that fundamentally ended the ceasefire, however, were the 17 September USA-led attack in Deir al-Zor that killed sixty-two Syrian soldiers, and the attack on a thirty-one truck aid convoy entering Aleppo, allegedly carried out by Russian aircraft two days later. Fighting subsequently intensified, and the regime resumed its aerial bombardment of besieged east Aleppo, declaring a new offensive to ‘liberate’ the area.
The ceasefire’s flaws were already apparent when considering the interests motivating the chief protagonists and the steps it was to follow. The US views the fight against IS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formally Jabhat al-Nusra), still believed by the Obama administration to have links with al-Qa'ida, as more pertinent, and believes that a political solution, however skewed in the regime’s favour, would help attempts to combat these groups. Further, it is wary of intensifying its military involvement in the conflict and has thus concentrated its assistance mainly on the fight against IS. Conversely, the Russians possess strategic interests in Syria, are fearful of a power vacuum were the regime to fall, and perceive most Islamist rebel groups as terrorists that pose a threat to the country. Since September 2015 Russia has acted directly, militarily, to protect these interests. Convergences over IS, and US reticence to confront Russia, meant that the USA endorsed or ignored Russia’s actions. The Obama administration also agreed to include Jabhat in the list of groups against which attacks were allowed even during the ceasefire, and committed to the formation of a joint intelligence centre with Russia to confront these groups if the ceasefire lasted more than a week. Notably, Jabhat had been actively involved in temporarily breaking the siege on Aleppo in July, and its entrenchment in Aleppo and other areas controlled by opposition groups prevent regime forces from continuing attacks in contested areas despite the ceasefire. The USA also altered its stance on the future role of Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, and now is open to Asad leading a transitionary government of national unity.
The ceasefire, thus, to be enforced by parties who were partial, and, especially in the case of the USA, had little influence on the ground because of this partiality and its unwillingness to follow up on policy pronouncements. Further, this partiality inhibited the chances for effective monitoring of the ceasefire, allowing for violations, especially by the regime, to go unpunished. Opposition forces were in a bind: coordinating with Jabhat would render them susceptible to Russian and US attacks, while halting coordination with and confronting the former al-Qa'ida affiliate would allow the disciplined group to consolidate control. In some instances, regime forces captured territory when US coalition attacks forced IS to retreat, and it was feared that Jabhat’s retreat would have a similar result, especially around Aleppo. Therefore, unlike the February ceasefire attempt which was endorsed by groups representing the regime and opposition factions and which lasted around a month, the September truce lasted five days.
Although the ceasefire has failed, it is likely that attempts will be made to broker a new one along similar lines, despite the current war of words between USA and Russia. The USA, believing that IS poses a greater threat than the Syrian regime, and having misgivings about the main Islamist forces that are currently the strongest and most well-organised rebel components, and which would benefit most from Asad’s fall, will go along with a Russian initiative. The balance of power on the ground heavily favours Russia, and dissuades active interference by other foreign powers for fear of confrontation with Russia. Further, the Turkish incursion into Syria is also likely to lead to a weakening of support for opposition groups, especially in light of the recent Turkish-Russian and Turkish-Iranian rapprochements and the belief that Turkey is reassessing its position on Asad. Already, thousands of Turkey-backed fighters have withdrawn from east Aleppo to focus on consolidating Turkey’s control of its 900-square kilometre incursion, and to prepare for a push towards the IS-held town of Al-Bab. Talks on reviving the Geneva peace process will continue after the current US-Russian spat settles, mainly because international powers are unable and unwilling to conceive of new solutions. Thus, even though the twenty-three-member International Syria Support Group meeting, held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, collapsed on 22 September with accusations of partisanship and no new measures formulated, and although the USA, the UK and France have accused Russia of war crimes, little actual action is being proposed to make even a ceasefire more enforceable.