Adam Mickiewicz University
In the wake of 2016, almost six years since the Syria civil conflict broke out, the rivals have signed by far the most important and comparatively solid ceasefire agreement. The agreement was made possible mainly by the surrender of rebellion-held Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, to the governmental forces. So far the truce seems to be working as long as Turkey and Russia, also stakeholders to the conflict, serve as guarantors of the agreement.
According to the truce agreement, the parties will start negotiations in Kazakhstan’s capital city Astana in January. The goal of the upcoming negotiations, with Turkey, Russia and Iran as key players, is to regulate the crisis for a short term and tests waters for political transition. Syria’s rebel opposition have agreed to take part in the process while radical Islamist and other Jihadi groups refused to participate. The USA’s Trump Administration have already declared that they are not going to participate in the negotiations. An invitation has also been extended to Persian Gulf and other Arabic countries.
By offering a new venue for negotiations in Astana Russia aims to create an effective alternative to Geneva talks around Syrian conflict. It is expected that Russia’s very own plan for the Syrian conflict resolution will be the key vision which is no longer an unmanageable barrier for Turkey. Even though the Geneva talks are considered be more inclusive a forum, its third round took off on 1 February 2016 without yielding any effective outcome. Unsurprisingly, Russia’s initiative is likely to beef up its importance in the region. However, it is also unlikely that Astana talks will determine the fate of the Syrian conflict as the situation there is far more complex than an eye may catch.
Syria at the onset of 2017
As of today a handful of large and hundreds of small military groupings hold control over Syria. Almost a fourth of Syria’s whole territory in its north-east has been under effective control of Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since the very beginning of the conflict.
Syria’s eastern part, however, has been a part of so called Islamic State since 2014. This extensive part of the country has small urban centers (Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Palmyra) while a desert stretches over the most of its part. It is expected that the Islamic State will try to reinforce their positions in Syria after having lost practically almost all large Iraqi cities as a result of offensives of the Iraqi army, Kurdish Feshmerga and USA’s air attacks (Mosul’s west district is the only place under their effective control) and is slowly withdrawing towards Syria through the only available corridor.
Bashar al-Assad’s army occupies the most densely populated western part of the country including the cities of Damascus, Homs and newly regained Aleppo.
Rebel and Islamist groups exercise control only over the Idlib province on the Turkish border, small parts of Damascus’ suburbs and rural areas in the furthest south-western part.
An extreme diversity of Assad’s opposition forces, which may have largely contributed to the prolongation of the civil war is an important factor to consider. By the end of 2013 around 100.000 rebels under up to thousand groupings were fighting against Assad’s army including 10 000 Jihadi fighters and 35 000 radical Islamists for who Syrian conflict was the major cause while the rest represented moderate Islamist formations.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) established by seven retired generals in August 2011 is the major secular force which volunteered to orchestrate the civil war. The army represented a spontaneous union of several squads which, in spite of the support provided by the West and Arab countries have failed to develop into a unified military force. The army consisted mostly of Sunni mercenaries and was not able to achieve important wins against Assad’s governmental forces. Because of its ineffectiveness, the Persian Gulf countries began to provide financial support and weapons to radical Islamist groups who were more aggressive and capable of yielding positive military outcomes. As of today, only small part of Free Syrian Army remain who occupy insignificant part of the territory and have weak influence over the rebels. Most of the Army’s members reportedly cooperate with Islamist groups.
Groups led by Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham are considered to be the most important representatives of the Islamist front. The groups’ members are radical Islamist and Salafi followers who strive to create an Islamic state of Sharia law on the Syrian soil. The groups count as many as 30-40 thousand fighters receiving the most of financial aid from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
A Jihadist wing of the rebels is represented by the Al-Nusrah Front, which has officially been recognized as terrorist group. The Al-Nusrah front was considered as a Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda up until 2016 when the group cut its ties with the terrorist organization and continued to participate in the Syrian conflict independently. Today the Jihadist group is known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
The American Fiasco
Protest rallies beginning in Syria in January 2011 were supposed to be a last turn of the Arab Spring to end the President Bashar al-Assad. The West hoped that like dictatorship would share the fate of other authoritarian regimes and surrender without much complications. However, an important factor that came to the fore in Syria changed the course of the events.
As a result of a secret 1916 agreement between Sykes and Picot and artificially demarcated borders Syria, unlike Tunisia, Libya and Egypt turned into the most diverse state with its blend of various religions, ethnicities, classes and tribes struggling to sustain itself under the Arab nationalist ideology thriving under a repressive Baatist regime for the past 50 years. It was this very diversity that have prevented the formation of a unified opposition during the protest rallies. The opposition was split by confrontations and often mutual hatred which allowed the Assad government backed by both financial and military elites to put up fight for sustaining their authority.
The Obama Administration, had clearly stated their own standing from the very onset of the events (which was something different from their actions with respect to Mubarak and Gaddafi): ‘Assad must go!’. This rigid decision had its grounds: The US had previously attempted to orchestrate a military coup in Syria on several occasions but to no avail. In 1960s Syria became one of the most reliable partners of the Soviet Union, an inheritance that came down to Russia. Syria, together with Iran, stood out with its drastic anti-Zionist politics openly supporting Lebanese Hezbollah. The Assad government has been one of the fiercest opponent to the Iraqi occupation in the region.
In spite of a declared support to the demise of the Assad’s regime, Obama had plainly decided on the US military policy in relation to the conflict which implied non-interference with land forces. Unsurprisingly, Obama, who had made promises to withdraw the US army from Iraq and Afghanistan to his electorate, did not want to wage a new war in the Near East. He decided to stay away from the conflict without a promising end and not to spend five billion dollars like the US did in Iraq. As a result of this decision, the American support to the rebellious groups was limited to air strikes and the provision of weapons.
The American military leadership supported only secular groups of the rebels. However, their assistance was inconsistent and vague. The US aviation, too, inconsistently attacked the Islamic State in Syria and provide intermittent support to Syrian Kurds. Eventually such an opaque military policy had resulted in weakening of the secular groups within rebels and made int clear that they would not be able to be a leading force in the fight against Assad. The opposition supporting the secular wing of the rebels suffered a failure in constructing an ideological basis because of its fragmented nature. They failed to develop a plan for the establishment and development of Syrian secular state which would ensure the protection of all minority groups. They had also failed to attract and persuade supporters because of an unclear vision. These failures have led to a leadership vacuum among those fighting against the Assad regime which had to be filled by others.
By 2014 the vacuum had already filled by radical Islamist and Jihadi groups with their strong ideology and a clear goal. They turned out to be far more efficient and successful fighting against the governmental forces and therefore, managed to secure support from the Persian Gulf countries and Turkey. As of today, a great majority of fighters against Assad’s government are either radical Islamist or Jihadists.
The US has failed to envisage that fragmented and heterogeneous opposition would fail to unite and overthrow the Assad regime.
Locked in its own ‘Assad must go’ policy, the US did not take any measure to form and militarily support a secular leading force in the ongoing conflict which would legitimately oppose the regime. The US did not attempt to persuade ally countries in the Persian Gulf, and Turkey to adopt its policy.
As a result, the US made an irreversible mistake: its non-interference policy has created a leadership vacuum in rebellious groups thus giving an opportunity to radical Islamists and Jihadists to become a driving force in this conflict. This mistake has, in turn, led to the following major fiascos:
1) In light of Islamists and Jihadists effectively claiming leadership the US has lost the legitimacy to enter the conflict and change Assad’s regime. Obviously, the country considered to be the number one in the fight against terrorism is no longer able to overthrow the formally legitimate authorities in collaboration of radical Islamist and Jihadist forces. Alternatively, if the US decides to informally support these groups, it is very likely that in the future it will have to deal with a new al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Syria.
2) With Islamists and Jihadists ascending to the leadership among the rebels, Russia has taken the opportunity to step in the conflict legally and legitimately to protect the Assad government from terrorists.
As of today, the US has become politically bankrupt in Syria: Assad managed to stay while the US has been deprived of any chance to legitimately regulate the conflict while being excluded from a new venue of the conflict resolution initiated by Russia and Turkey in Astana.
It does not strike as a surprise that the new administration in the US lacks any clear vision for the resolution of the Syrian conflict and focuses only on the destruction of the Islamic State.
The Russian Triumph
As a result of Russia’s support to separatist movements which took momentum in the western part of Ukraine in 2014 and Crimea’s annexation, the West imposed sanctions over Russia and eventually marginalized it to the extent that practically no rational player of the international community would talk to the country.
By the fall of 2015, a political configuration within the Syrian conflict granted Russia almost unbelievable opportunity to restore its discredited status. Vladimir Putin, accepting Bashar al-Assad’s official invitation, decided to provide military support to his only remaining ally in the east. By the end of September Russia launched its first military intervention in the region. Sceptics believed that Russia had trapped herself into an interminable bloodshed.
Russia had fallen under international pressure to completely abandon the Near East since the Cold War drew to its end. However, the country still managed to maintain base in Syria’s port city of Tartu. In addition to being an ally, Syria, together with Lebanon and Iran, was important to Russia for the purpose of deterring the Israeli threat. Since 2015 Russia’s marine, land and air forces have been providing substantial support to Assad’s government as a result of which Syrian army moved from the defensive to the offensive and crowned the victory by reclaiming Aleppo by the end of the last year.
Meanwhile, Russia’s effective involvement in the fight launched Syria’s legitimate authorities against terrorists, had eventually gaining the former more and more weight on an international arena. In fact, it appears that Russia is protecting Syria from falling in hands of a new radical Islamist organization which is very likely to pose threats to not only the region, but to the West as well. As of today, multilateral negotiations are being held in Astana under Russian aegis and with the involvement of the UN and other representatives of the West.
Apart from parts of rebel radical Islamists, Russia is actively fighting against the Islamic State in Syria thus actively competing with the US in the fight against terrorism. Because of its linear policy Russia has been developing itself into an increasingly trustworthy partner for the countries in the region.
In addition to military and political successes, Russia has managed to gain ideological support. Putin does not believe in Arab democracy. He does not think that after overthrowing the corrupted dictatorship Arab societies will manage to establish pluralistic democracy. Instead, what he believes in, is the need for a strict administrator in the region. To his understanding only an authoritative leader will be able to avert threats. Putin openly accuses the US creating the chaos and fueling up Jihadist radicalism disguised by the desire to spread the US style democracy in the region. This accusation is packed up by Iraqi, Libyan and Egyptian experiences. Therefore, Putin holds that Assad is the very factor which would determine Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Otherwise the Syrian state is doomed to fall into pieces, a prediction that certainly has rational behind it.
By its involvement in the Syrian conflict, the Russia managed to gain indirect benefit. The country managed to further reinforce its relationship with Iran and found an effective common language with Turkey.
For the first time after the civil war broke up in Syria six years ago, conflicting parties have managed to sit around a table of negotiation thanks to efforts by Russia and Turkey. None of the parties has expectations that Astana talks result in finding a rapid solution to the conflict. Nevertheless, Astana talks gave a birth to a new instrument for peaceful regulation of the conflict which provides at least some possibilities. Obviously, Russia is going to be a lead in this negotiations providing a major line for the solution of the problem to be discussed by the parties. In light of Russia’s strong position and ambiguity related to the US vision, it is likely that Turkey will agree to Russia’s plan possibly with some variations.
Presumably, Donald Trump will remain passive in resolving Syria’s conflict. He is not an avid supporter of democracy and a strong ruler in Syria is not likely to cause him any problem. In the course of his presidential run-up Trump consistently criticized intervention in Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein by administration of President George Bush. In a debate with the presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Trump denounced the overthrowing of president Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Trump’s isolationist policies may be changed only when the change is regarded as the last resort. So far, the necessary involvement for Trump is limited to the destruction of the Islamic State. Therefore, it is highly likely that Trump is going to see the conflict resolved by Russia’s hands.
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