Why Russia-brokered Syrian ceasefire has chance of succeeding
Labelled an international pariah only months ago by Boris Johnson, and warned he would be stuck in a Syrian quagmire by a patronising Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin ends 2016 if not as the undisputed victor, then at least as the man at the centre of decision making.
It is Moscow and not Washington that is calling the shots in the Middle East. Reeling from its cold war defeat and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire, Moscow was unable to save Yugoslavia from what it termed western aggression. But in the case of Syria, it can claim it has recovered its self-respect. In the process, it has built a brutal reputation for sticking by its friends, understanding the dynamics of the region better than America, and knowing how to use military power to forge diplomatic alliances.
The US, by contrast, ends 2016 out in the cold, holding a postmortem into the failure of its peace drive with Israel. Many will rightly warn that experience in Syria shows ceasefires are fragile and do not lead to peace talks, let alone peace deals. But the unlikely Russian-Turkish peace drive has a propitious backdrop. No single formula or manual exists for ending a civil war. But a sense of futility born of exhaustion, a decisive change in the military balance, a recasting of the key actors and a shift in the diplomatic alliances are all key ingredients, and in the case of the Syrian civil war all four factors exist.
After five years, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and the displacement of millions, the Syrian people have experienced the deepest depth of despair. Whatever democratic hopes led to the rebellion, those dreams seem further away than ever. The military intervention of Russia a year ago saved President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and this month led to the defeat of the rebels in east Aleppo, changing the military balance for good. Hillary Clinton’s failure to be elected president extinguished the final hope that a more interventionist, strong anti-Russian voice would be heard in the White House. Donald Trump may be an unknown quantity, but given the choice he will back Assad, and not the Saudi-supported rebels. Finally, Assad’s greatest external opponent, Turkey, has for a mixture of reasons – some noble and some self-interested – decided to make its peace with Putin. It leaves the divided rebels forced back on their own resources, and the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has discovered for itself in Yemen the price of war, and will not intervene militarily in Syria without US involvement.
Russia is welcoming diplomatic and economic overtures from traditional US allies in the region. Qatar has invested in a $11.5bn deal for a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer, even though the company is subject to US and EU sanctions. Eygpt also appears to be close to a new beginning with Moscow. So some of the old road blocks to peace are disappearing.
But that does not mean all is now plain sailing for Russia. Ending Syria’s multilayered war makes solving a Rubik’s cube look as simple as the most mundane game of noughts and crosses. For a start Turkey still insists Assad will have to stand down as part of the peace process, the issue that led to previous peace talks to founder. So Putin will have to find a formula that eluded the UN’s Syrian peace envoy, Staffan de Mistura, which allows the talks to start with the issue of Assad’s future in effect parked.
The identity of the rebels to be invited to the peace talks will also have to be agreed. That will require Assad to abandon his division of Syria into loyalists and terrorists, requiring Putin to force Assad to accept that he will have to negotiate with rebels that are not linked to Islamic State or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaida. US officials believe it is nigh impossible to separate al-Nusra from mainstream rebels.
Putin will also struggle to ensure that Iranians feel they have gained sufficient spoils from victory. Figures cited by Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, suggested Iran had a position of influence over 30,000 Shia militias in Syria. “An inconvenient fact for an Obama administration determined to retain the Iran deal’s implementation has been that wherever the Assad regime has gained in Syria, the Iranians have invariably been leading the charge,” Lister has written. “And with Assad now firmly in place in Damascus, Tehran enjoys overwhelming influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with substantial sway in parts of Yemen and the Palestinian territories.” Iran is already saying its arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia, must not be present at the talks. Turkey looks like the pivotal state. The US also appears to be in the process of mislaying this vital ally, but it is hard to read how much Ankara will compromise to strike a deal. Essentially Putin offered Turkey’s president a bargain. In return for allowing the Syrian army to capture Aleppo, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looks to have been given the opportunity in northern Syria to push back against a Syrian Kurdish federation, his key concern, even though the US-backed Syrian Kurds have been at the forefront of the fight against Islamic State in Raqqa.
The Kurds were excluded from the UN Geneva peace process, and Putin’s initial peace talks due to take place in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, may also leave the Kurds without a seat at the negotiating table. If so, the Kurds, another bloodied US ally, will feel that the professorial Obama proved to be a lot better at lecturing on the state of the world than actually shaping it. And into that vacuum, Putin has successfully rushed.