by Elijah J. Magnier
Belligerents in Syria are preparing for a new round of violence despite the ongoing preparations by the main two guarantors (Russia and Turkey) for the Astana-Kazakhstan peace talks.
These coincide with the end of the US Obama administration and the beginning of the new era led by President Donald Trump.
The main reason for this war preparation and the ceasefire rejection is the exclusion of the main groups who represent tens of thousands of militants. These are: the “Islamic State” (ISIS), Al-Qaida (Nusra/Fateh al-Sham) and similar jihadist groups, plus pro-Turkey Ahrar al-Sham.
Despite the agreement on the ceasefire between Moscow and Ankara, essential countries involved in the Syria war, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were excluded from the first round of the Astana peace talks and did not delegate their wishes to Turkey to negotiate on their behalf. These Middle Eastern countries refuse, to-date, to raise the white flag, and they still enjoy significant influence over tens of thousands of militants fighting in Syria, demonstrating the failure of the Russian-Turkish meeting in Kazakhstan. The exclusion of the US and Europe is also a factor presaging an unsuccessful outcome, a by-product of Russia’s pressing determination to end the Syrian conflict. Turkey has not said its last word: it has not committed to abide by Russia’s terms in reaching the end of the war in Syria. Moreover it has refrained from imposing on its proxy, Ahrar al-Sham, the signature and agreement on the ceasefire, and abandoning the choice of war: this despite the loss of Aleppo.
Also, Damascus and its allies consider Russia is in too much of a hurry, trying to reach an immature political compromise for fear of being stuck in the Syrian quagmire. The “Afghanistan nightmare” seems to dominate the Russian politicians, causing the failure of two out of three ceasefires “imposed” by Russia these last months. It looks as if – at least according to Damascus and its allies – the third ceasefire is will fail dramatically, simply because conditions and circumstances for its success are absent.
The Russian announcement to pull out its forces from Syria is irrelevant because the 4,500 officers and soldiers are still spread all over Syria, operating on the ground.The group of ships led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is due to leave as part of its routine end-of-mission and the presence of the naval group was in any case a political move directed at the US, asserting Russia’s determination to face all challenges in Syria.
Damascus and Tehran believe that Russia’s absence for over 30 years from the Middle Eastern arena accounts for its inadequate negotiation skills.. The Middle East understands the language of “forceful negotiation” and many players have their own agenda, willing to fight to defend their interests in the region and trying to have an influence over the course of events, mainly in Syria and Iraq.
The Turkish role is crucial but still unclear, its political approach in Syria fluctuating depending on the circumstances: in al-Bab where Turkish forces are engaged against ISIS, Ankara is in need of Russian support to operate in the area and push forces further towards Raqqah. Turkey is waiting for the Obama administration’s exit, marking a distance from the US until a clear stand toward the Middle East is materialised by the new President Trump. Turkey is trying to contain the reaction of its proxies in Syria who reject any compromise unless it includes the end of the President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
Turkey is avoiding any hits against al-Qaida in Syria to avoid repercussions on its national security and circumvent a possible war declaration like the already existing ones with the Kurdish PKK and ISIS. The Turkish President RecepTayyipErdogan has demonstrated that he understands Russia’s impatience to end the war in Syria and its urgent need to end the conflict in order to register a politico-military-regional-international victory. The Turkish stand, multi-faceted and complex as it is, will certainly affect the course of the war in Syria, either in prolonging or reducing its length.
However, Turkey’s window for manoeuvre cannot be very long, otherwise its troops in Syria will be in direct danger from the Russian and Syrian Air Forces. Its stand will therefore be clearer the day jihadists and rebels initiate a wide attack against the Syrian Army and its allies around Aleppo or on other fronts. And then Turkey will no longer be considered a viable partner.
For reasons mentioned above, Damascus does not trust Ankara and looks sceptically at the possibility of the ceasefire’s success and that of Russia’s generally premature initiatives. They know that the language of war will continue to prevail until the danger is pushed away from Damascus, eastern Ghouta, south, west and north Aleppo, rural Hama and Homs, and rural Latakia. Only then would the possibility of any ceasefire success be significant: when all jihadists and those aiming to continue fighting are pushed towards a particular area in the north of Syria.
It seems the resurgence of battles in Syria is an inescapable fact in the light of prevailing mistrust, the manoeuvres by various players and the rejection and exclusion of most of the powerful organisations and jihadi groups operating in the Syria of the ceasefire. It also seems that Turkey is doing exactly what Washington resisted in its negotiations with Russia: splitting the jihadists from the rebels. Players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar stand against this move because, indeed, they haven’t announced their defeat. Moreover, the lack of maturity of this peace process and the differences between Russia and its allies inevitably mean that battles are expected to regain their intensity, this until the main parties involved are seriously and demonstrably committed to ending the war in Syria. Even though the Astana process is not expected to be successful it still represents the first step in that thousand mile journey.