Amid the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, countries in conflict, such as Syria, are in the spotlight. The UN called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria in light of the pandemic after Turkey and Russia announced a ceasefire agreement in the northwestern Idlib province on 5 March. Idlib, a province largely controlled by Al-Qa'ida offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), has been under heavy bombardment by the Syrian regime, supported by Russian airpower over the past year. The bombardment has pitted the Syrian regime against Turkish and Turkish-backed forces stationed across the province in observation posts set up in May 2017 under the Astana agreement signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Since February, the regime bombardment has resulted in the deaths of over thirty Turkish soldiers in Idlib, with Turkey threatening a massive retaliation. These escalations saw Turkey and Russia agree to a ceasefire on 5 March that includes joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway. The M4 is one of the two most strategic motorways in Syria, running from Latakia to Saraqib, parallel to the northern border with Turkey. The highway’s strategic route also links Syria’s commercial centre Aleppo with Mosul in Iraq, making it important for trade between the two countries.
The 5 March ceasefire agreement followed a series of ceasefire agreements that Turkey and Russia had signed since the Astana de-escalation deal. It is the second of its kind since the beginning of this year. The first was announced on 9 January 2020, after a Syrian regime offensive forced 300 000 Syrians towards the Turkish border, with many living under trees in already overburdened refugee camps. The January agreement did not hold for long as Russia and the Syrian army soon advanced against rebel groups in the province, capturing strategic towns along the M4 and M5 highways. The latter motorway, also called the Damascus-Aleppo highway, is the second most important highway in Syria, beginning in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, and linking the country’s four largest cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, near the Turkish border. It intersects the M4 in Idlib. The route is crucial for the Syrian economy, and used to transport around $25 million worth of business each day before the war. Turkey, which controls twelve observation posts in the province under the Astana agreement, repeatedly warned of escalations as the offensive intensified until Turkish soldiers were killed by regime bombardment in February.
On 15 March, Turkey and Russia conducted their first joint military patrol along the M4, but were forced to stop these after protests by residents. Civilians living in areas along the M4 highway demonstrated against the presence of Russia, and condemned the ceasefire agreement. People opposing the ceasefire agreement called for the halt of Russian-sponsored patrols, and for displaced people to be allowed to return to their homes in Idlib. Russia dismissed these protests as ‘terrorists using civilians as shields’, while Turkey chose to ignore them completely.
Ankara’s approach of ignoring the protests highlights Turkey’s miscalculations in Idlib. Its backing of opposition groups such as Free Syrian Army (FSA), which, together with other groups, has morphed into an umbrella structure now called the National Liberation Front (NLF), as well as its indirect coordination with the HTS (formerly an Al-Qa'ida affiliate called Jabhat Al-Nusra), has yielded both problems and solutions. The groups had assisted Turkey in its operations against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, helped coordinate its demilitarised zone in Idlib to keep refugees from flocking to the Turkish border, and some of their members have agreed to be deployed by Turkey to Libya to fight against warlord Khalifa Haftar. After the 5 March agreement, these groups defied Turkish orders to stay clear of the demilitarised zone created in 2018. This as speculation rises that the Syrian army and Russian forces will soon resume the offensive in Idlib, ending the almost one-month-long ceasefire agreement with Turkey. With these disagreements, Turkey is struggling to keep its 5 March ceasefire promises to Russia. Russia argues that jihadist groups such as HTS must be eliminated before military operations can be halted in Idlib.
Turkey is also hesitant directly to confront HTS, even though it designated the group a terrorist organisation in August 2018. Turkey had supported HTS and other similar groups earlier in the Syrian civil war, and it is apprehensive about fighting a group with which it had previously coordinated operations. The situation is further complicated by these groups launching attacks against Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Two Turkish soldiers were killed by a rocket attack that Turkey believes was launched by HTS or one of its affiliates on 19 March, two weeks into the ceasefire agreement. Although Turkey said it had retaliated against the perpetrators, it was not clear how the retaliation actually took place. Compounding Turkey’s predicament were protests by Turkish-backed groups since the start of April in Ras Al-Ain and Al-Hasakah areas in the northeast, as well as in parts of rural Raqqa where many Turkish soldiers remain stationed.
Moving forward, the form of Turkish cooperation with rebel groups in Idlib is uncertain, as Russia remains adamant that these groups, in Syria’s last rebel bastion, must be destroyed. The 5 March ceasefire is nearing its end as regime and Russian forces prepare for another round of heavy bombardment of the province, which has already displaced over 300 000 people, most of whom fled towards the Turkish border and its overcrowded refugee camps. Turkey is in a difficult situation, fearing it will face heavy repercussions if it confronts jihadi groups that could launch attacks inside Turkey through inactive cells. Further, attacking the rebel groups could jeopardise its own operations in the province, and its attempts to prevent refugees fleeing the regime bombardment from flocking to Turkey where over three million refugees already reside. Turkey’s predicament is worsened by the fact that it does not want to upset its relationship with Russia, which has allowed Turkey to carry out numerous military campaigns in northeast Syria against Kurdish forces. Despite rollercoaster Turkey-Russian relations over the past few years, Turkey regards Russia a necessary ally as its relations with both the USA and Europe remain precarious.
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
As various parties to the Syrian crisis, including the United Nations, Russia, and the United States, prepare for ‘proximity talks’ to take place this week, and as UN Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura attempts to put a positive face to a ceasefire he oversaw, it was clear within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire going into effect that it would not hold. Within the first week of the ceasefire a total of 135 people were killed according to one monitoring group, although the real number is likely to be much higher.
The cessation of hostilities between Bashar al-Asad’s regime and a selection of opposition groups took effect on 27 February. The ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia and the USA, co-chairs of the seventeen-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG). The joint US-Russian communiqué regarding the aims and logistics of the ceasefire noted that Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra were not included in the ceasefire agreement, and mandated that a US-Russian-led ISSG Ceasefire Task Force would be responsible for identifying IS- and Jabhat-controlled territory for continued airstrikes. The communiqué also committed all parties to ensure the safe passage of aid to areas requiring it. Within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire having gone into force, however, Russian aircraft are believed to have bombed targets in Hama province around the village of Herbanafsa, where rebels associated with the powerful Jaish al-Fatah faction are operating. In Darkosh, Idlib province, where Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) rebels are in control, the ceasefire is also not holding. Throughout the week following the signing of the ceasefire agreement, suspected Russian aircraft continued to pound villages allegedly linked to JAN and IS and those controlled by the Free Syrian Army, which is a party to the ceasefire. Due to international and regional actors putting their geostrategic goals ahead of promoting a complete winding down of hostilities, the ceasefire is incomplete and is barely holding even in its targeted areas.
The communiqué notes that the identification of armed groups will be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Paragraph 8 of the resolution obligates UN member states to suppress ‘terrorist acts committed specifically by…entities associated with Al Qa'ida or ISIL’. A number of groups so identified by this resolution are backed by the USA – either directly or indirectly through its allies in Ankara, Doha and Riyadh. The powerful components of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, are backed by Riyadh, received training through CIA programmes, and were invited to form part of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam have occasionally fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, and also alongside Free Syrian Army-linked units, notably in the eastern Damascene suburbs. Ahrar al-Sham’s position on various issues has been particularly ambivalent. It aims to present itself as moderate and accommodating in various Arab media forums, while also stating that it will not abide by any ceasefire, and pledging support for Jabhat al-Nusra. The group opportunistically allies itself with al-Nusra in areas where IS and the Syrian forces pose a threat, while decrying Nusra’s exclusionary Salafism on the international stage to avoid being labelled a terrorist outfit.
Such tactics have provided Russia with the excuse to continue bombing ‘terrorists’. Meanwhile, Riyadh and Washington see groups such as Ahrar al-Sham as a counterweight to IS and regard them as battle hardened enough to be able to hold ground against the Syrian army. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will likely continue arming and funding certain groups within Jaish al-Fatah; Riyadh hopes to bolster its main proxy groups as the war enters a new and more unpredictable phase. Ankara hopes to strengthen groups that can win political and military victories against the Kurds. The ambition of the most powerful Syrian Kurdish armed group, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), is to link the Kurdish cantons of Efrin with other Kurdish cantons ofCizire and Kobani by a strip of Syrian territory disputed between various rebel groups and IS. By linking these three cantons the PYD-YPG would be able to forge a contiguous Kurdish-controlled territory in order to entrench its social project and block supply routes to Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and other rebel groups. Ankara views this ambition as a direct attack on its security and foreign policy goals in Syria; an autonomous Kurdish area on its southern border could provide the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has renewed hostilities with the Turkish state, with a safe haven. Furthermore; any experiment in autonomy could provide inspiration to Turkey’s own restless Kurdish population. Turkey has therefore been shelling YPG positions along the border and threatened intervention into Syria – which is unlikely given the strong involvement of Russia.
Another important element of the ceasefire communiqué is the humanitarian aspect. Parties to the ceasefire are obliged to ‘allow humanitarian agencies rapid, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their control’. UN and partner aid agencies had planned to deliver life-saving aid to 154 000 civilians this week, but even this is subject to the politics of the groups involved, with many areas still subject to air raids. The siege of Deir al-Zor, wherein 200 000 people are trapped, continues because IS, which controls that territory, is not part of the agreement; and airdrops which were meant to ease the plight of the besieged inhabitants have been missing their targets.
De Mistura expressed hope that increased aid to besieged areas and a lull in the violence could set the stage for the revival of the halted Geneva peace talks. He wants ‘proximity talks’ to begin on 10 March. It is likely that the Syrian regime will attempt to create a situation on the ground before then that will grant them maximum negotiating power. Riyadh and Ankara, meanwhile, will look at ways to prop up rebel factions in order to both block both an Iranian diplomatic coup and a roll back of Kurdish goals.