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.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
While being a violation of the sovereignty of a neighbouring country, Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory along the Syria-Turkey border and its attacks on Islamic State group (IS) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions there have not been heavily criticised except by the USA and various Kurdish groups. It has received mild criticism from the Russian and Syrian governments, and significant support from the Turkish population and many Turkish opposition groups. The intervention – called Operation Euphrates Shield – is expected to be a longterm one, and is set to worsen already-tense relations between Turkey and the USA.
The operation follows several fatal operations in Turkey by IS and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the wake of state security weaknesses after the July coup attempt. The Syrian YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and has strong links with the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. While the US also considers the PKK a terrorist group, it regards the PYD/PYG as an essential element of its anti-IS armed forces in Syria, and a component of what it calls ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’. Relying on two diametrically opposed actors – Turkey and the YPG, both US allies – to fight a common enemy presents the USA with a tactical and strategic dilemma. Soon after Turkey’s incursion began on 24 August, the USA called on YPG forces to move east of the Euphrates River, a key demand of Turkey, but on Wednesday US spokespersons criticised Turkey’s moves against the group. With the YPG refusing to relocate, USA faces the prospect of losing the largest component of its SDF if it pushes too hard. The head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel,announced at a Pentagon press briefing this week that the YPG had moved east of the Euphrates, but the lack of agreement on whether this is true will exacerbate relations between the two NATO allies.
Turkey had been unable to convince its allies to impose a no-fly zone on the Syria-Turkey border which, Turkey claimed, would help keep millions of refugees safe; Operation Euphrates Shield is likely to create a de facto ‘safe zone’ for refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Turkish planes had begun the first movements in the operation, bombing IS targets in the northern Syrian area of Jarablus. Two hours later 1 500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters crossed over from the Turkish region of Karkamis, accompanied by an armed battalion of twenty-five M60A3 tanks, and close fire support from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The FSA troops include Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which Turkey considers ‘moderate’ – particularly after the FSA sidelined al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups two weeks earlier.
The operation involves 350 TSK soldiers, 200 troops from mechanised units, and 150 special forces. They are supported by heavy aerial operations conducted collectively by the anti-IS coalition. In addition, seventeen Turkish war planes are participating in the operation, including eleven F16s. Turkey is also using newly-acquired Bayraktar TB2 unarmed drones. An armed brigade is on reserve at the border area of Karkamis and security analysts suggest the nearby base at Kilis Elbeyli will coordinate air support and medical evacuation with FSA units. Based on the type of armaments used by the TSK, Turkey is likely intending to have a longterm presence in Syria’s north with, possibly, a military base in Jarablus that serve as a coordination and training area for FSA fighters. Turkey hopes the FSA can prove its mettle in the field, and then be able to capture the IS stronghold of al-Bab. Should the FSA take that city, it will favour the opposition politically, and deprive the YPG of its status as the most efficient anti-IS force.
This is the first occasion that a NATO member puts boots on the ground in Syria since the war there began in 2011, and comes at a critical time for Turkey, which just six weeks ago experienced an attempted coup that dealt a severe blow to the TSK’s prestige. Caught between its membership in NATO and the deterioration of domestic security, Turkey extracted much benefit from the recent turnaround in relations with Russia to secure Moscow’s assurances that Russian aircraft will not fire on FSA and Turkish troops during this complex operation. The Russian foreign ministry has officially said it ‘is concerned about Turkey’s incursion into Syria’ and that actions against IS should be coordinated with Damascus. Syria itself responded with a statement complaining about the violation of its ‘sovereign rights’, but not suggesting it would do anything more about it.
Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria reflects a change in Ankara’s regional policy from one that claimed humanitarian issues at the core of its policy to a return to hard security goals by national interest. A key political and security aim is to prevent the creation of a contiguous area controlled by the PYD on the 822-kilometre Turkey-Syria border. To achieve this it becomes necessary for the FSA and other rebel factions to unite under a single political banner that regards the territorial integrity of Syria as a precondition for peace talks. Realising this political aim will require the FSA to secure more than just the Jarablus area, and to extend its control to terrain to the west up to the Rai-Azaz / Jarablus-Cobanbey line. Should it gain control of this area, Turkey will be able to cut off IS supply routes and isolate the PYD in the town of Afrin. Turkish warplanes and artillery targeted YPG targets in Afrin on the second day of Euphrates Shield.
The quiet responses to Turkey’s incursion by Russia and Syria (whose response was limited to a written statement) reflects their similar objective that Syria’s integrity be maintained; they thus would be unhappy to allow the PYD to set up an autonomous Kurdish area. Syria’s Iranian allies are also unhappy about what message Kurdish autonomy in Syria might send to Iranian Kurds – especially since recent clashes between the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and reports that the USA might be supporting the PDKI. Tehran has already said it tacitly supported Turkey in its anti-PKK effort although the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Turkey should halt operations that challenge Syria’s against central government authority, suggesting that Iran remains sceptical of Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria.
Qatar, another regional actor which has supported the FSA, will support Turkey in its push against IS and the YPG as the two countries share similar perspectives on key issues. Qatar has sought to diversify its defence partnerships with the setting up of a Turkish-Qatari military base in the emirate state, which also reflects the rapidly changing security architecture of the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama are due to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in China on 4 September, but it is unlikely that any substantive movement on a Syrian peace deal will be announced as fighting between the government and rebels continue in the key area of Aleppo.