K. P. Fabian
January 3, 2017
Significant developments took place
regarding Syria in December 2016. The partial cease-fire brokered, or rather,
brokered and imposed, by Russia and Turkey, with Iran’s concurrence, on
President Basher al Assad and a part of his foes, known as ‘moderates’, might
mark a turning point in Syria’s tortuous and painful journey since 2011. Left
to himself, Assad would have preferred to carry on with the military operations,
heavily and crucially supported by Russia and Iran, and recover more territory.
At present, he controls only the western part, which has a high population
density and greater wealth than the rest of the country. Even Damascus is not
safe as recent attacks on the Russian Embassy have proved. The ‘moderate’
rebels also would have preferred to get more arms and keep fighting.
This is the third cease-fire in less than
12 months following the aborted ones in February and September 2016. Those two
were begotten by long negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and
his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, and were announced with much fanfare.
The US was conspicuously absent this time around, marking President Putin’s
intention to side-line the outgoing Obama Administration. We might presume that
Putin would have kept the President-elect Trump in the loop.
The cease-fire came into force at 2200
hours GMT on December 29 and, despite some violations, it has held so far.
There is also an agreement on monitoring the cease-fire for which the
guarantors are Russia (for the Syrian government’s observance) and Turkey (for
the rebels covered by the cease-fire). Russia and Turkey do not have identical
plans for Syria, but they have decided to work together respecting, to the
extent possible, each other’s primary goals.
The ‘moderates’ who have signed into the
cease-fire were forced to sign up within 48 hours. The support from Saudi
Arabia and Qatar has dried up and, in any case, such support in the shape of
lethal and non-lethal supplies has to come through Turkey. Obviously, the
‘moderates’ cannot resist Turkey’s pressure.
Apart from the agreements on the cease-fire
and on monitoring it, there is a third document on holding talks on a political
transition. The ‘moderates’ have signed it and the version they received had a
reference to the earlier talks held in Geneva in June 2012 where the approved
document contained a provision for a transitional governing council with full
executive powers. The interpretation of the ‘moderates’ is that Assad was not
part of that council. But, there was no agreement on Assad’s role in Geneva.
Nor is there any agreement now. The Assad government signed the document after
deleting the reference to the transitional governing council. In short, there
is no text agreed to by Assad and his foes.
Of US And Its Allies
Obviously, by the timing carefully chosen,
Putin wanted to administer a parting snub to President Obama who found it
difficult to deal with Moscow and took the lead in demonizing his Russian
counterpart after the latter annexed the Crimea in 2014. Mark Toner, spokesman
for the Department of State, reflected the
Obama administration’s frustration when he
said, “We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties.”
There has not been any comment from London, Paris, or Berlin, probably because
the West feels slighted at being excluded from the talks. The Russian Embassy
in London did an online poll asking for the reason for the silence of the Foreign
Office and half the respondents said that it was ‘jealousy’.
Security Council Resolution On The Cease-Fire
On December 31, the UN Security Council
unanimously adopted a resolution (2336 of 2016) with slight amendments to the
text proposed by Russia. The Council, instead of endorsing, “welcomes and
supports the efforts of Russia and Turkey”. The original resolution referred to
the political transition talks in Astana from mid-January onwards. The amended
one made it clear that the Astana talks will be an important step ‘ahead’ of
the resumption of talks under UN auspices in Geneva on 8 February 2017.
It may be recalled that the UN’s Special
Envoy Staffan de Mistura was excluded from the talks leading to the cease-fire.
One reason for the exclusion might be that Washington would have learnt
everything about the negotiations through the UN and might have even derailed
the talks from which it was excluded. At the same time, Moscow has expressed
the hope that the UN would take part in the Astana talks. Obviously, the UN
will not be chairing the talks.
Complications Of The Cease-Fire
It was mentioned earlier that what has been
agreed to is a partial cease-fire. There is some lack of clarity as to which
parties are included and which excluded. The Russian defence ministry says that
seven of the “moderate opposition formations” have signed the agreement: Faylaq
al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Thuwwar Ahl al-Sham, Jaysh
al-Mujahidin, Jaysh Idlib and Jabhah al-Shamiya. Obviously, these names do not mean
much to outside observers, except that they have been, with one or two
exceptions, classified as ‘moderates’ by the West and their Arab allies who
have been lending support to them. What is known is that Ahrar al-Sham and
Jaysh al-Islam are powerful Islamist groups that Russia has previously
described as terrorist organizations. Incidentally, a spokesman for Ahrar
al-Sham told Reuters news agency that the group had “reservations” and had not
signed the deal.
Now comes the question of exclusion. The
announcement by the Syrian Army says that the cease-fire will not cover “the
Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups (outlawed in Russia) and
also the affiliated armed groups.” The last six words require parsing, which
can be done only later as the cease-fire proceeds. All that one can say now is
that “also” is redundant. As already pointed out, there is no agreed text on
the talks for the political transition.
Crucial Role And Its Long-Term Goals
Turkey, the NATO member with the second largest
military in the alliance, has moved closer to Moscow and away from Washington.
Turkey decided some time back that it could take care of its interest only by
working closely with Russia. For his part, Putin was more than willing to
promote discord between Ankara and Washington.
Out of the 80,000 and odd rebels in Syria
fighting Assad and occasionally among themselves, about 60,000 are covered by
this agreement. Turkey has influence over these 60,000 as it has been aiding
some of them and permitting foreign donors to send military aid through its
territory to the rest. With the drying up of aid from Saudi Arabia (hardly any
aid in 2016) and Qatar (hardly any aid for the last six months), Turkey’s clout
over the ‘moderates’ has understandably increased.
Turkey has made noises about its wish to
see Assad leave the scene, but by now it is clear that Turkey too has accepted
that Assad is too well entrenched to be pushed away by it and its allies. In
any case, the goal of removing Assad is less important than conducting some
military operations in Syria near the border with Turkey. Such operations can
be conducted only with Russia’s consent and Erdogan has understood that. These
operations have two goals, the more important of which is to prevent the Kurds
in Syria from controlling territory that would enable them to work with the PKK
(Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Workers Party) and the YPG
(Yekineyen Parastina Gel, People’s Defence Units) in Turkey. This goal is
within reach. The other goal is to defeat the IS (Islamic State), especially in
the area adjoining to the border. YPG is an ally of the US in the fight against
the IS. One has to wait and see how the Trump Administration addresses this
disagreement with Turkey.
The Cease-Fire Hold?
What are the chances of success for the
cease-fire and efforts towards a political settlement combined with a united
onslaught on the IS? While it would be foolish to offer a prediction, the
cease-fire appears to have, for the time being, a better chance than the two
previous ones. It may be recalled that Kerry lacked support from the Pentagon
for the September 2016 cease-fire.
However, Assad’s military has already
broken the cease-fire in Wadi Barad Valley northwest of Baghdad. It has been
reported that the rebels added diesel to the springs in the valley, an
important source of water to the four million population in Damascus. Syrian
forces along with Hezbollah fighters have gained ground in the fight
continuing. All cease-fires are fragile, but the ones in Syria even more so.
Assuming that over time IS loses all the
territory it has in Iraq/Syria, would that mean the dawn of an era of peace and
tranquility for Syria? No. The liberation of Mosul, when and if it happens,
will beget much tension, and is likely to lead to fighting among the Iraqi
Shias, the Iraqi Sunnis, the Iraqi Kurds, and Turkey over territory.
Even after losing territory, IS would be
able to carry out terrorist strikes, as it seems to have done at the night club
in Istanbul on the New Year night killing more than 35 people. IS is a mind-set
that can survive the loss of territory.
Trump has made it clear that his primary
interest in Syria is to destroy the IS. He is prepared to work with Russia.
Given that, it is likely that the emergence of a Putin-Trump combination would
make it easier for the IS to get recruits to fight against the ‘crusaders’?
The Kurds now control much territory in
Syria and the Kurds in Iraq have a degree of autonomy. Will the Kurds in Syria
agree to anything less than the type of autonomy their Iraqi counterparts
enjoy? Will Assad agree to grant such autonomy?
Assad is vulnerable as he is crucially
dependent on the military support of Moscow and Tehran. But he is safe so long
as these two capitals support him. The key question is whether some time in
2017 Putin would agree with Trump to withdraw the life-support from Assad as
part of a larger deal involving Syria and more? If that were to happen, Trump
can boast that by making a deal he did what Obama who had publicly asked Assad
to step down as early as August 2011 failed to do.
Teheran’s support for Assad is stronger
than that of Moscow’s. But, even for Iran, retaining Assad is not the primary
interest. It wants a corridor to Lebanon to send aid to the Hezbollah and it
wants to have that corridor through an area with a Shia majority population. If
Iran were to gain such a corridor, it might agree to a grand bargain that
includes the removal of Assad.
In short, there are many imponderables as
of now, and it cannot be definitively said that the present cease-fire will
necessarily take Syria to a peaceful destiny. But, the cease-fire would reduce
the killing and as such should be welcomed by all. All told, Putin has
demonstrated imaginative diplomacy by the timing of the cease-fire, by bringing
in Turkey, by keeping the US and its allies out at this stage, and preparing
for a grand bargain with Trump. By not expelling US diplomats in retaliation to
Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, Putin has earned the good will of
2017 might turn out better for Syria than
2016, partly because Washington might adopt a more consistent policy on Syria
and is likely to stop demonizing Putin and start working with him, and partly
because the ‘moderates’, ‘softened up’ by the recent military successes of
Assad, may prove to be less adamant.
Ambassador K. P. Fabian is an Indian Diplomat who
served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000, during which time
he was posted to Madagascar, Austria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Canada, Finland, Qatar
and Italy. During his time in the diplomatic service, he spent three years
in Iran (from 1976 to 1979), witnessing the Iranian Revolution first hand. As
Joint Secretary (Gulf), Fabian coordinated the evacuation of over 176,000 Indian
nationals from Iraq and Kuwait in 1990–91. His multilateral experience includes
representing India at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization,
International Atomic Energy Agency, International Civil Aviation Organization,
Food and Agricultural Organization, World Food Programme and the International
Fund for Agricultural Development. He is also the author of two books,
Commonsense on the War on Iraq, which was published in 2003 and Diplomacy: