Competing forces stall stable ceasefire

From the moment unrest erupted nearly six years ago, Syria has been a plaything of opponents of the government and competing regional and international powers.

At least 3,00,000 Syrians ha­ve died, about 40% of them civilians, and half of the country’s 23 million people have been driven from their homes by war. Unfortunately, the UN-sponsored negotiations to end the conflict remain hostage to the very regional and international actors who are responsible for the war.

They have competing and conflicting agendas and plans for Syria, preventing the UN from securing a stable ceasefire and negotiating a deal to end six years of war. Consequently, the fourth round of negotiations in Geneva, launched on February 23, faces huge challenges.  UN mediator Staffan de-Mistura hopes to achieve enough momentum to keep the government and opposition talking.

Although the situation in 2017 is very different from 2016 due to the shift in the balance of military power and political advantage in the government's favour, its opponents still cling to the demand for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down.

The government is not prepared to yield. Damascus has been strengthened by the recapture of eastern sectors of Syria's former commercial hub, Aleppo, held by insurgents since 2012. This means the government controls Syria’s five major cities — Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and Hama — and rules over 80% of Syrians remaining in the country. The government has also been bolstered by growing international acceptance of the fact Assad is not going to step down any time soon.

President Donald Trump has reinforced this belief by saying Washington should join Damascus and Moscow in the fight against the Islamic State.  Tru­mp’s intentions have not, however, been clarified and he is under pressure from US military and security quarters to follow the anti-Damascus, anti-Mos­cow line adopted by the Obama administration. Therefore, Trump remains an unknown factor, creating us uncertainty.

Russia and Iran remain committed to the survival of the Syrian government and the stabilisation of Syria. Russia entered the battle for Syria in October 2015; Iran became involved in 2012. Moscow provides the Syrian army with air cover while Tehran has deployed advisers, troops, and militiamen to aid the undermanned and overstretched Syrian army.

The Saudi-sponsored opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC), reinforced by figures from Saudi and Western-backed insurgent groups, has been seriously weakened by the loss of east Aleppo and by other military reverses.

The HNC’s downward slide has been magnified by a lack of support within Syria and by fighting in Idlib province, the opposition stronghold, between al-Qaeda’s off-shoot, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Front for the Conqu­est of Greater Syria), and Western and Arab-backed insurg­ents. This has prompted the US to halt the flow of arms and funds to its armed allies due to the fear that weapons would end up with al-Qaeda or IS,
both dubbed “terrorist” factions.

De Mistura has repeatedly called for a more “inclusive” membership on the opposition delegation with the aim of boosting its standing, but the HNC's external allies have insisted it should be the sole voice of the opposition. For this round, de Mistura defied the HNC and added two other opposition groups to the delegation: the Cairo and Moscow platforms, which enjoy political backing from Egypt and Russia, and do not insist on Assad's ouster. They provide moderate voices.

Turkey, a mainstay of the opposition, has exacerbated uncer­tainty and confusion by playing games with Russia, the Syrian government’s main ally; Saudi Arabia, its enemy; and the US which remains undecided how to deal with Syria. Moscow and Ankara had agreed to promote the latest ceasefire and, reportedly, press for a political solution without defining Assad’s fate.

Turkey-Saudi-Russia
After having reached this deal with Moscow, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergodan paid a visit to Riyadh to meet Saudi King Salman, who sponsors the HNC and continues to insist on Assad's ouster. While the king may have convinced Erdogan to revert to this line, he is set to visit Moscow early in March and may be convinced to stick to the deal with Russia. This could depend on what Trump decides.

Erdogan is seeking Trump’s backing for an unworkable plan to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria where refugees could settle, a scheme opposed by Damascus, Moscow and their ally Tehran. Russia wields a veto in the UNSC and, with Iran, has the military muscle to prevent the creation of such a zone.

Turkey has also muddied the military situation in northern Syria by deploying Syrian insurgent fighters, bolstered by Turkish troops and tanks, in the battle for strategic territory and has threatened to march on Islamic State’s capital at Raqqa. 

This risks a clash with the US-supported Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces already engaging IS ahead of a full-scale battle for Raqqa. Ankara’s priority is to prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous entity along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Ankara could have Riyadh’s backing for Turkey’s plan, creating a fresh area of conflict in Syria.

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