In Astana, a Deal That Leaves Assad’s Power Intact

The ceasefire agreement recently negotiated by Russia, Turkey, and Iran preserves Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, but the deal itself is significant because for the first time the key players, with the exception of the United States, have come to the table with an understanding that a political solution to the conflict is no longer a viable option, according to two Middle East analysts at the Atlantic Council.

“The idea of political transition in Syria is done,” said Faysal Itani, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “The opposition can no longer achieve political change through military action, or indeed through the negotiation process,” he said.

“There was never any way that that was going to happen unless there was military leverage used against the regime, because the regime was never going to agree to a political transition, nor has it ever pretended that it would,” he added.

On January 24, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, along with representatives from the Assad regime and rebel factions, negotiated a ceasefire in Astana, Kazakhstan.

“We have moved, rightly so, where the people doing the fighting are the people doing the negotiations,” said Itani.

The Kremlin invited the United States to take part in the negotiations, but Trump administration officials declined the offer. Consequently, this marks the first significant negotiation to end the conflict in Syria in which the United States was not involved.

Previous attempts to end the conflict had been conducted through the United Nations (UN) in Geneva with the Syrian High Negotiating Committee (HNC). The groups that met in Astana will reconvene in Geneva on February 8. However, according to Aaron Stein, a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center, the Geneva process has been ineffective. Stakeholders in the conflict must find a way around the impasse of the Geneva Communique “if you want to stop the bullets from flying back and forth,” said Stein.

Astana is significant and distinct from Geneva because for the first the attendees were Syria-based members of the armed opposition. “The people [in Astana] are actually the trigger-pullers, not the ones that sit outside the country, and therefore should have more sway on the ground in terms of being able to abide by [the agreement],” he added.

Itani noted that this is the first ceasefire that actually reflects the balance of power in Syria “determined by a convergence between the Turks and the Russians who are in agreement on a few basic, important things.”

Under the terms of the deal, the external powers agreed to monitor and enforce a truce on the ground in Syria. However, according to Itani, members of the Syrian government and rebel groups in attendance did not sign an agreement. Rather, “these are ‘calls for’ [ceasefire] by the main foreign backers,” he said.

Though no enforcement mechanism was set forth, guarantors of the ceasefire agreed to meet again in Astana on February 6 to discuss a trilateral monitoring mechanism. However, the Assad regime has insisted an offensive against rebels in Damascus will carry on, and ongoing fighting by rebel groups on multiple fronts threaten the deal. Additionally, on January 25, al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham defeated a number of Free Syrian Army and Islamist rebel factions, further destabilizing the prospects for peace. The jihadist group was left out of the Astana talks.

Though attending Astana allows the insurgents to have a voice in formal negotiations, ultimately the agreement is unlikely to play out in their favor, according to Itani.

“The opposition, as we define it, is done as a viable political force,” Stein said. He described how “they have been usurped by Islamists in Idlib, and there’s no getting around the fact that al Qaeda is the backbone of the insurgency there.” Similarly, ISIS and Kurdish nationalists have established their own rule in other parts of Syria.

Trump’s war on ISIS

US President Donald Trump, as well as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, has asserted that destroying ISIS and Islamic extremism will be a top national security priority for the new administration.

“If counter-ISIL is your top priority and you want to go fast, you only have one option to go fast,” said Stein. He said that eliminating ISIS necessitates a focus on the offensive in Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital in Syria, at the expense of Turkey’s war against the Kurds. The prioritization of Raqqa “portends poor relations with Turkey in the short term,” he said.

The Obama administration grappled with this dynamic for two years, said Stein. Now, “Trump himself will actually be the person who will have to face it head on; he won’t be able to deflect it. My guess is he’ll push forward and Raqqa will be the priority,” he added.

The US role in the implementation of the cease-fire will “depend on how the administration does business,” said Itani. He predicted that Trump will concentrate on fighting terrorism, but contended that the Trump administration will not recognize the nuances between various insurgent groups; “they’re either part of the problem or in the way of the solution.”

Stein echoed this concern predicting an “overwhelming push from the new administration to significantly curtail American assistance to all these groups, and the premise will be that they’re Islamists. This is a further move toward the Russian perspective on the war, even with Astana.”

Ultimately, “this is an ‘America first’ administration,” said Itani. 

Meanwhile, the Turkey-based opposition coalition nominally supported by the Obama administration to fight ISIS has become irrelevant, said Itani. Rather than delivering weapons and securing international protection, the coalition force “consumed themselves with fighting over positions that didn’t mean anything. Because [the coalition] was not able to act as an effective foreign ministry for the revolution, no one cares,” he said.

Negotiating peace

Aside from the lack of US presence, the Astana process is significant, distinct from the United Nations peace process and prior ceasefires, because it reflects a shift in priorities among external actors in the Syria conflict, and a desire to extract themselves from the fighting.

According to Stein, “one of the major things is that there’s been a bending by Turkey to simple assumptions that actually help move the process forward if your goal is a ceasefire, a peace, not actually regime change.”  In particular, Turkey has backed down from its insistence that Assad relinquish office as a precursor to peace. “That is a recognition [by Ankara] Assad won’t go,” said Stein.

Without the intention of regime change, “there’s really no more purpose in putting all your financial, military, diplomatic capital in fighting a proxy war you lack the will to win,” said Itani. He said the Turks will “free up those resources to fight the Kurds and fight [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] ISIS.” However, in shifting focus, Turkey has acquiesced to a plan that accommodates Russian strategy. Above all, Russia aims to appear as a winner in this conflict.

“From the beginning of [Russia’s] intervention [in Syria], what they wanted to do was apply military force in order to, as quickly as possible, generate a political outcome that can look like they won and preserves the continuity of the survival of the regime,” Itani said. To do so involves ending the fighting and propping up Assad’s regime, but not necessarily maximizing his influence.

In contrast, Iran hopes to keep Assad in power so that they can retain control of strategic territories throughout Syria. “They want Assad to secure Syria for himself, and for them,” said Itani. However, he said that neither government has the ability to counter Moscow without jeopardizing their recent military gains, and must at least appear to concede to the ceasefire. As a result, “the most worrying thing for the Iranians and the regime is talk of enforcement mechanisms,” Itani said. “It’s not in their interest for there to be mechanisms that hamper that agenda,” he said, “at least not yet because there are still some important geographies that they want to take that they haven’t taken yet.”

As a result of these overlapping agendas, Stein predicted that at some point the negotiations “are going to have to turn around and come back to Washington because [the United States is] an active combatant in the conflict.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: Aaron Stein and Faysal Itani

Image: Mohammad Alloush (C), the head of the Syrian opposition delegation, attends Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan January 23, 2017. (Reuters/Mukhtar Kholdorbekov)