By K.P. Fabian*
What began as the Arab Spring, with the fall of the dictator Ben Ali of Tunisia (24years in power) in January 2011 and of the dictator Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (30 years in power) in the very next month, has taken the worst possible transmogrification in Syria.
Half of the 22 million population has been rendered homeless; almost 5 million Syrians are scattered in Turkey, Europe, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere mostly as unwelcome refugees; the death toll is difficult to estimate, but it could be more than half a million;13.5 million, including 6 million children need humanitarian help; and the economic cost of reconstructing what has been destroyed so far and the loss of GDP has been estimated at $1.3 trillion to be contrasted with Syria’s GDP of $64.7 billion in 2011.
In Tunisia and Egypt there was no foreign military intervention. In contrast, there was unilateral military intervention in Libya by NATO, under the pretext of a duplicitously worded UN Security Council Resolution, and that country is in utter chaos with more than one government. It reminds one of Thomas Hobbes’ dictum about a state of nature where there is a war of all against all.
But, easily the worst case is Syria where foreign powers intervened for and against the dictator Basher al Assad. Iran and Russia intervened to prop up Assad whose army was losing territory at a rapid rate. Russia has supplied arms and diplomatic support at UN Security Council right from the start. Since September 30, 2016, it started a huge air campaign, often bombing, in brazen violation of international law, the same hospital again and again. Iran sent in troops and senior military advisers. It also called in its ally Hezbollah from Lebanon.
The foes of Assad are divided and it is difficult to establish a correct and comprehensive list of the various formations and describe their political orientation. Briefly, the foes of Assad include: the ‘moderates’ supported by US and its Western allies, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the Islamic extremists of various hues, supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the beginning and by Turkey from time to time, including IS (Islamic State) and Al Qaeda which has recently changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS); and the Kurds partially supported by US.
Recently, Assad’s army has registered significant gains in Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is obvious that Assad is on a life support system maintained by Russia and Iran. Assad and his external supporters were keen to arrange for a partial cease-fire at a time when they had the military upper hand.
On December 29, 2016, Russia and Turkey, with the concurrence of Iran, brokered, or rather brokered and imposed a ceasefire between the ‘moderates’ and Assad, with political consultations to start in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana in the middle of January 2017. The ceasefire categorically excluded IS and JSF. But, there is much doubt whether who are all included. The Russian defense ministry says that seven of the “moderate opposition formations” that signed are: Faylaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Thuwwar Ahl al-Sham, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, Jaysh Idlib and Jabhah al-Shamiya.
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Obviously, these names do not mean much to most of us. We may note that they have been, with one or two exceptions, classified as ‘moderates’ by the West and their Arab allies who have been lending them support. We also know that Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam are powerful Islamist groups that Russia had previously described as terrorist organisations. 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 ceasefire will not cover “the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups (outlawed in Russia) and the affiliated armed groups”. The last five words require parsing which can be done only later as the ceasefire proceeds. All that one can say now is that “also” is redundant.
Apart from the ceasefire agreement, there are two other documents: an agreement on monitoring the ceasefire, with Turkey to monitor and guarantee compliance by the ‘moderates’ and Russia to do the same for Assad’s army; and the third document on the talks in Astana.
The status of the third document about political transition is ambiguous. The ‘moderates’ have signed a version which has reference to the earlier talks held in Geneva in June 2012 (known as Geneva 1) 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.
Assad’s government has deleted the reference to the Geneva 1 document in the version it signed, the implication being that it rejects the idea of an executive council with full executive powers unless Assad heads it. In short, there is no common text on the scope of the political talks in Astana primarily because of dispute over Assad’s status during the transition. The ‘moderates’ were given only 48 hours by Turkey to sign the agreement worked out without them. We should bear in mind that such ambiguities are not unusual in such situations.
The two previous ceasefire agreements in February and September 2016 reached after long hours of complex negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov did not hold as intended. This time, Putin decided to exclude US and UN, when Turkey, the NATO member-state with the second largest army in the alliance, openly worked with Russia. Incidentally, UN-sponsored talks on political transition are due to start on February 8, 2017.
Obviously, Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to snub his US counterpart Barack Obama who had demonised him after Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Kerry’s September ceasefire agreement, though he had the green signal from the White House, was publicly contested by the Pentagon. It is painfully clear that Obama’s policy on Syria has been inconsistent and has been a resounding failure as it has not delivered the intended results. Obama publicly called on Assad to step down as early as August 2011; Assad was warned not to cross the ‘red lines’ set by Obama by using chemical weapons; he used such weapons and Obama backtracked from his plans to bomb Syria.
The ceasefire came into force at 2200 hrs. GMT on December 29. As to whether it is holding, there are conflicting reports. Assad’s forces have carried out attacks in Wadi Barada and in Eastern Ghouta, both adjacent to Damascus. Wadi Barada is the source of water for the 5.5 million residents of the capital city. The regime has accused the rebels in Wadi Barada of poisoning the water by adding diesel to it and damaging the pipelines.
There is no way of knowing the truth though reports of severe water shortage in the city of Damascus are reliable. About a thousand people, mainly women and children, have fled Wadi Barada because of the regime’s attacks. Assad and his allies have continued with their operations against Idlib, a province next to Aleppo, held by FAS and others. By and large, the Assad forces account for most of the ceasefire violations.
The short point is that it is a ceasefire imposed on the weakened rebels and not one willingly agreed to by all concerned as a precursor to serious political negotiations with the goal of taking Syria towards peace and tranquility.
Obviously, Washington and its allies were taken by surprise and did not know how to react to the ceasefire. Mark Toner, spokesman for the US Department of State, reflected its frustration when he said: “We hope it will be implemented fully and respected by all parties.” We have not come across any comment from London, Paris, or Berlin probably because the West feels slighted that it was 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’.
Russia moved the Security Council to get the ceasefire endorsed. On December 31, the 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 February 8, 2017.
It may be recalled that UN’s Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura was excluded from the talks leading to the ceasefire. One of the reasons for that exclusion might be that Washington would have learnt everything about the negotiations through UN and might have even derailed the talks from which it was excluded. At the same time, Moscow has expressed the hope that UN will take part in the Astana talks. Obviously, UN will not be chairing the talks. Moscow has expressed the hope that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Egypt will attend the Astana talks.
Turkey 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 and Putin was more than willing to promote discord between Ankara and Washington.
Out of the 80,000-odd rebels in Syria fighting Assad and occasionally among themselves, about 60,000 are covered by this agreement. Over these 60,000, Turkey has influence as it has been aiding some of them and permitting the foreign donors to send military aid through Turkey 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.
Turkey can conduct the military operations only with Russia’s consent and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has got it. The operations have two goals, the more important of which is to prevent the Kurds in Syria from controlling territory that will enable them to work with the Kurds in Turkey led by the PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – or Kurdistan Workers Party). The other, lesser, goal is to defeat the IS (Islamic State), especially in the area adjoining the border.
Turkey had specifically excluded from the ceasefire the armed Kurdish group YPG (People’s Protection Unit), the ally of US in the fight against IS. Turkey wants US air support in its operations against both YPG and IS.
The dispute between Washington and Ankara is turning ugly with the Turkish Foreign Minister Melvut Cavusoglu publicly asking US why it wants to remain at Turkey’s Incirlik airbase if it does not want to give air support to Turkey’s operations in northern Syria. The latest is that Turkey has rejected the air support US reluctantly agreed to give and has asked for such support from Russia. Turkey’s claim is that the terrorist strikes against Istanbul, Nice, Paris, and Brussels originated from al Bab and hence it has to be captured. Turkey is confident of completing the capture soon.
Turkey’s tough talk against the US is primarily directed against the Obama administration. Ankara hopes for a change when President-elect Donald Trump takes over. We do not know how Trump will address the Turkish conundrum.
All cease-fires are fragile, but the ones in Syria even more so and it is too soon to say whether the Astana talks will take place and what the talks will deliver, if held.
Let us assume that the Astana talks succeed and over time IS loses all the territory it has in Iraq/Syria when Putin and Trump join hands against IS. Does it mean the dawn of an era of peace and tranquility for Syria? No. The liberation of Mosul, when it happens, if it happens, will beget much tension, likely to lead to prolonged fighting, among the Iraqi Shias, the Iraqi Sunnis, the Iraqi Kurds, and Turkey over territory.
Even after losing territory, IS will 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 mindset that can survive 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. Will the emergence of a Putin-Trump combination make it easier for IS to get recruits to fight against the ‘crusaders’? It will.
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 such autonomy?
Israel’s long term plan for the region includes an independent Kurdistan. Perhaps, the US too might entertain the same goal, but it is in no position to openly support an independent Kurdistan as Turkey is ferociously against it. As regards Russia, it has publicly maintained that it prefers to deal with the central government in Baghdad and not directly with the Kurdish government in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. We might recall that following the First World War (1914-18) the Kurds had been promised a Kurdistan, a promise that was not carried out.
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 support him. The key question is whether at some time in 2017 Putin will agree with Trump to withdraw the life-support from Assad as part of a bigger deal between the two involving Syria, Ukraine-related sanctions and more? If that happens, 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 Hezbollah in Lebanon and it wants to have that corridor to have a Shia majority population. If Iran gets 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 we cannot say that the present ceasefire will necessarily take Syria to a peaceful destiny. But the ceasefire will reduce the death toll.
All told, Putin has demonstrated imaginative diplomacy by the timing of the ceasefire, by inserting distance between Turkey and the US, by keeping the US and its allies out at this stage, and by preparing for a possible 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 Trump.
The year 2017 might turn out better for Syria than 2016, partly because Washington, by adopting a more consistent policy on Syria, will stop demonising Putin and start working with him respecting the cardinal principle of diplomacy to deal with the incumbent. Further, the ‘moderates’, softened up by the recent military successes of Assad, might be less adamant. But dismantling the IS will cost a huge death toll and runs the risk of more terrorist strikes in the West, Turkey and elsewhere.
There is no end to Syria’s sorrows in sight.
*Ambassador K. P. Fabian is a retired Indian diplomat who served in the Middle East and has deep knowledge of the region. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]