Syria hopes for peace after ceasefire

Damascus may remain conflict-ridden and be unable to persuade 4.5 million Syrian refugees to return home.

The ceasefire across Syria negotiated by Russia, Iran and Turkey could be a game changer for West Asia if the truce holds and is followed by negotiations between the government and opposition.

The cessation of hostilities became possible only after insurgent factions were expelled from opposition-held eastern Aleppo by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies.

The return of this sector of the country's former commercial hub amounted to a famous victory for Russia, which provided air support. It was a victory also to Iran, which deployed ground forces as well as Damascus, which has gained control of 80% of the populace still in Syria and its five main cities.

For the opposition, the loss of east Aleppo signified the “end of the revolution,” though a revolution in name only. It was, instead, a revolt staged by a divided opposition activists and multiple, competing paramilitary factions backed by Western and Sunni external powers. These factions were gradually taken over by al-Qaeda-inspired radical Sunnis seeking to transform Syria into a coercive, puritan version of an Islamic State.

This has been rejected by the country’s Christian and other minorities as well as most Syrian Sunnis, the majority community, whose sons are soldiers fighting the radicals.

The insurgents’ departure from east Aleppo amounted to a defeat for Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as the US, Britain and France which sponsored the opposition and armed the insurgents. Without the backing of these powers, they would never have been able to conquer eastern Aleppo, impose themselves on the countryside, and attempt to overthrow the regime in Damascus.

Ankara has many reasons to break ranks with these powers and join Moscow and Tehran in serious efforts to end the war. Turkey has borne the burden of 2.7 million Syrian refugees and has been destabilised by spill-over from the Syrian conflict. Turkey has suffered 19 deadly bomb attacks, killing 411 people.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is angry over US sponsorship of Syrian Kurds in offensive against IS’ capital at Raqqa in north-central Syria. He fears the Syrian Kurds will join dissident Turkish Kurds in their battle against Ankara. Erdogan, who sees himself as a major regional leader, is also furious over Turkey's exclusion from the US-Iraqi campaign against IS in Mosul in Iraq.

By joining forces with Russia and Iran, Damascus’ defenders, Turkey has made a volte-face. Since the unrest began in Syria in 2011, Ankara has sponsored rebels, jihadis, and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated expatriate opposition and funnelled fighters, funds and arms across its border into Syria with the aim of overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by military means.

While continuing to call for his ouster, Ankara is now seeking his removal through negotiations. Since opposition groups backed by the US and Saudi Arabia have agreed to the ceasefire, it appears they too have opted for a negotiated end to the conflict and the preservation of Syrian national unity, sovereignty and integrity.

Russia and Iran have agreed to shelve the Assad issue tempo­rarily because Turkey can deli­ver key insurgent groups as well as the High Negotiation Committee, regarded internationally as the opposition spokesman. Seven armed factions have sign­ed up to the ceasefire, including Ahrar al-Sham, the second most powerful of these factions, and Saudi-founded Army of Islam.

Astana meet

If the ceasefire takes hold, talks co-sponsored by Russia and Turkey will open in the Kazakh capital of Astana, where the pro-Assad and anti-Assad camps could try to reach a compromise over his fate. Assad has agreed to the formation with a unity government with ministers from the opposition.

However, he could come under pressure from Russia and Iran, which have spent blood and treasure to keep him in office, to cede key powers to this government which will write a new constitution and hold fresh elections. This formula could sa-tisfy the anti-Assad camp which may, perhaps, at long last, come to understand that his early departure could create a vacuum which would be filled either by al-Qaeda or rival and warring fundamentalist warlords.

If a compromise can be reac­hed, government and opposition representatives could, once again, meet in Geneva under UN auspices to forge a deal to end the war. If successful, Damascus, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the US-led coalition will still have to deal with insurgents not party to or excluded from the ceasefire, notably IS and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). For such campaigns Turkey, which has a 900-km border with Syria, is the essential partner. 

Once that border is sealed and IS and the Jabhat are cut off from reinforcements, arms and supplies, it will be possible to uproot the former from Raqqa and the latter from the north-western Syrian province of Idlib. Without tackling both and insurgents not adhering to the ceasefire, Syria will continue to be conflict-ridden, unable to reconstruct devastation from six years of war, and persuade 4.5 million Syrian refugees to return home.

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