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.

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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.

The question of whether Russia’s primary objective is to target IS or bolster the Syrian government is based on a false binary from the Syrian and Russia perspectives. Russia has repeatedly ridiculed the idea that there are ‘moderate’ rebels, and has labelled all insurgents as ‘terrorists’, as has been the Syrian government position since the uprising began in 2011. Russia even asked USA to share intelligence on rebels that might be battling IS, ostensibly to avoid targeting them.
Perhaps more important than determining Russian intentions is pondering how otherprotagonists in the Syrian conflict will respond to the latest Russian move. Russia’s bravado is on display; what is unclear is how countries that make up the broad coalition against the Syrian regime – the USA, Turkey, Saudi Arabia (and, to a lesser extent, Qatar, UAE and Jordan) – will respond to Russia’s intervention. Will these states support the Syrian rebels in a manner that will allow them to resist the renewed spirit in the Syrian Arab Army (and various other pro-regime militias), reinvigorated as they are by Russian support?
US response
If Ukraine is any precedent, and considering the general tendency of the US Obama administration in this second presidential term, the USA will not respond to Russian aggression by significantly increasing its support for the rebels. In fact, with all its talk about ‘deconfliction’, the USA is more interested in keeping out of Russia’s way in Syria, while attempting to develop an alternate strategy to confront IS, after having spectacularly failed previously.
Turkey’s response
Following the Russian entry into the Syrian battlefield, Turkey will have to rethink its role and re-evaluate whether it can support the Syrian insurgency in a manner that the latter might be able to confront the Russians. Despite Turkey having been at odds with Russia for a large part of their history, the ruling party, the AKP is in a precarioussituation with a new parliamentary election in less than a month, and an electorate that has to be won over. Further, it is dealing with a renewed Kurdish insurgency led by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has the potential to destabilise parts of Turkey. Also influencing Turkey’s deliberations will be economic and energy ties with Russia that strengthened recently. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted that he is willing to reconsider the agreement with Russia on its building the first Turkish nuclear power plant, and also hurting it economically by refusing to buy natural gas from Russia. However, though a change on either of these issues will hurt both Russia and Turkey, the latter will be affected much more than the former. But most importantly, even if Turkey does scale back its economic relations with Russia, it is not clear that this will translate into a greater military commitment towards the Syrian rebels.
Saudi Arabia’s response
Saudi Arabia is in a different situation to Turkey. Since it does not share a border with Syria, its support for Syrian rebels depends on its coordination with Turkey and Jordan over what these countries are prepared to allow along their borders with Syria. Any stronger Saudi rhetoric about supporting Syrian rebels needs, therefore, to be checked against this reality. Second, Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, is tackling numerous problems domestically – such as an increased IS threat within its borders, and the Houthi insurgency in Yemen which, even if pacified in Yemen’s south, will continue to pose a threat along the Yemeni-Saudi border. These factors will likely undermine the Saudi appetite for further fuelling the Syrian insurgency.
But herein lies another dilemma for Saudi Arabia. If it does not increase support for the insurgency, Saudi IS and al-Qa'ida sympathisers will likely be swayed by the argument that their government is an ‘apostate’ regime, and that they are obligated to fight ‘jihad’ against the Russians (also, Syrians and Iranians), thus creating a greater security threat within Saudi Arabia. There are already opinions being voiced in this direction. On the other hand, if Saudi Arabia increases its support for Syrian rebels, such support must be effective enough to force the Russians to withdraw, and to topple the Asad regime. Anything less than that will effectively be a victory for the Syrian regime. With Russians now backing the Syrian government, a rebel victory requires Saudi Arabia to either involve its own military in Syria or sufficiently equip the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons that can be effective against Russian aircraft. Neither of these is realistic, and, therefore, it will not be a surprise if Saudi Arabia accepts the Russian campaign as an invitation to de-escalate its support for the Syrian insurgency.
Conclusion
This, obviously, does not mean that the Syrian rebels will put down their weapons, even if their foreign backers, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and USA cease their support. What it means is that the Russian initiative to form a Syrian contact group – which would include USA, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – might lead to some political reconciliation in which the militarily exhausted rebel groups will be included in a transitional process to give the impression that the Syrian conflict is winding down.
This, however, presupposes that the rebels’ foreign supporters, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are looking to reduce the bloodshed in Syria. That has not, thus far, been the predominant tendency with any of the protagonists in the Syrian conflict; most parties have been bent on bleeding their adversary into submission. It therefore remains to be seen whether the Russian intervention in Syria will force a change in this calculus or entrench the current sensibilities even further.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

After numerous predictions over the past two years about the imminent fall of the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria, developments are beginning to take a different turn for the embattled Syrian president. The battle for the town of Qusayr, in western Syria, is proving to be one of the most decisive and strategic battles since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, which started more than two years ago, and has left a least 80 000 people dead and millions displaced.

 

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