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.
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.
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.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked many with his announcement on 14 March that his 8 000-strong expeditionary force in Syria would begin a gradual withdrawal over the next five months. The move has attracted a varied set of responses from Russia’s allies, critics, and other roleplayers in the Syrian crisis. It is clear this will not be a full withdrawal of all forces, weaponry and materiel. Instead, while most forces – including pilots – will return home, a number will be confined to the Russian naval base in Tartus, and the Russian Hmeimim airbase near Latakia, as will much of the weaponry and military aircraft. Putin claimed the withdrawal was because Russian intervention in Syria had achieved its objectives.
Since September 2015 Russian aircraft have bombarded Syrian opposition groups, as well as some Islamic State group (IS) targets, from the air, while Spetsnaz special forces and Russian military advisers have directed and assisted Syrian, Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces in their defence of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and the Syrian army’s surge into Aleppo’s rebel-held northern countryside. Russia also upgraded its Tartus naval base, and rebuilt and expanded the Hmeimim airbase.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had initially said the intervention was aimed at fighting ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria, which, for Russia, included various Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. But Russia’s objectives also included: propping up the Asad regime and returning it to a position of superiority on the battlefield; removing the immediate threat to the Alawi heartland along the western coast; ensuring that Russian interests in Syria were protected; establishing itself as a global player that is able decisively to deal with international conflicts; use the military campaign to prepare for Geneva negotiations in a manner that would make negotiations favourable to the Syrian regime and to Russia’s role as a mediator. Many of these objectives have been attained, and Russia does not want to extend its stay and risk an Afghanistan-type quagmire.
When Russian aircraft took to the skies above Syria in September 2015, rebel forces had been making substantial and sustained gains on the battlefield, and had posed a threat to Asad’s stronghold of Latakia. The Russian campaign has decisively reversed many of those gains and eliminated the threat to Latakia; and while the regime still does not have full control over the country, it is now more secure and has the upper hand in the war. Russia is not necessarily concerned about Asad having full control over the country, even if that is the Syrian government’s aim.
Russia is eager to secure is its interests in Syria, and has achieved that by securing the regime’s position, thus ensuring Russian influence in the Arab world; fortifying the Tartus and Hmeimim bases, thus guaranteeing Russia a longer term presence and protection of its warm water Mediterranean port. That this is not a real ‘withdrawal’ is illustrated by Putin’s comment that the two bases will be ‘protected from the land, from the sea, and from the air’. Russia might have stopped bombing Syria, but it will still have the capacity to control Syrian airspace and to deter foreign (including regional) powers from intervening.
Russia has also strengthened its influence in Syria through its intervention because it has emboldened forces within the Syrian Ba'ath Party which do not like the Islamist Iranian ally, including senior officers who trained in the Soviet Union and are more comfortable with a Russian role than an Iranian one. Furthermore, Iran has become, for Russia, a slightly less predictable ally after the Iran nuclear deal drew that country closer to the West. Direct influence in Syria means Russia does not need to rely on Iranian influence to achieve its objectives there. Thus, although Iran was pleased when the Russian strikes began, it might see its influence in Syria decrease in favour of Russia.
Putin has also decisively emphasised Russia’s status as a global player that will not shy away from challenges, and is able to play a role in foreign conflicts both at diplomatic and military levels. Unlike the US role in countries such as Libya, Russia is also able to claim that it intervened not against but in support of an internationally recognised government, thus not violating international law.
Significantly, Putin made the announcement on the day that peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition groups were to resume in Geneva. As co-chair of the International Syria Support Group, Russia was instrumental in setting up the ceasefire – as problematic as it might have been – that was vital for these negotiations to take place. Russia’s support of Asad in the past five months means it will be able to persuade him to participate in the talks in a manner that will lead to some solution. Asad’s belligerence should be sobered by realising that Russia can alter or withdraw its support as it pleases. Furthermore, with the opposition having been battered by Russian airstrikes, these groups will participate in talks while licking their wounds, and with the knowledge that the strikes could begin as suddenly as they had ended. Despite belligerent rhetoric, many of them will also be relieved to find a solution. For Russia, its withdrawal from the battlefield allows it now to present itself as more ‘neutral’ and as a mediator, enhancing its role in the talks and on the global stage.
Putin aims to re-establish Russia’s political standing globally, commensurate to its nuclear capability, UN Security Council seat and historic role in world affairs. Guiding the Syrian war to a settlement which restores relative stability can therefore be significant. While the Syrian role and the withdrawal helps rejuvenate its image as a military-diplomatic superpower, it also assists in rolling back Russian isolation forced onto the state by western sanctions after its intervention in Ukraine. The European Union will decide in July whether to renew sanctions on Russia. If Russia secures a Syria deal that helps reduce the flow of refugees to Europe, and can use a Syria deal to ease tensions in Ukraine, it could realise a favourable outcome in July. It will bank on Italy and/or Hungary – whose representatives have already met Russian officials to discuss the refugee issue – to oppose sanction renewal.
Another gain for Russia, though of a lower priority, has been an increase in Russian arms sales in the past few months. Russian airforce sorties over Syria provided a wonderful advertisement for its weapons’ industry.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Russia’s military involvement in Syria, from the beginning of its aerial bombing on 30 September until the launch of cruise missiles its ships in the Caspian Sea on 7 October, has raised numerous questions about its intentions. Is Russia’s aim in Syria totargetpthe Islamic State group (IS) and pre-emptively eliminate IS Chechen fighters before they return to their homes, as it claims? Or has Russia entered Syria simply toprotect and bolster the Damascus government? And, if Russia continues its military activities in Syria at this level, could its intervention turn into another quagmire like Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union.