Ceasefire in Syria: Good News?

Turkey and Russia are struggling to sustain a Syrian ceasefire. The Assad regime and a range of nationalist, Turkish-supported rebel organizations are supposed to stop shooting. Excluded from the terms are Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front), the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh). If the ceasefire somehow takes hold, the aerial terror campaign against Syrian civilians by Russia and the regime will subside, and regime-opposition peace talks may begin in Astana, Kazakhstan. This would be all to the good.

Two parties with real stakes in Syria—Turkey and Russia—decided to follow-up quite ambitiously in the wake of their recent Aleppo ceasefire arrangements. The absence of the United States is notable. American officials have anonymously complained about having been excluded, but Ankara and Moscow both see the Obama administration as an empty suit in Syria: speaking loudly and often, but carrying no stick.

Indeed, Russian leaders view American counterparts with barely disguised contempt. Turkish leaders feel exasperation. They see Washington chasing ISIS in central and eastern Syria with a ground force consisting mainly of Kurds affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), while the Obama administration lifted not a finger to protect Syrian civilians from regime and Russian aerial atrocities.

If the ceasefire really takes effect and holds, Ankara and Moscow may get major pieces of what they seek in Syria. For both sides a win-win situation looks achievable.

For Turkey, an end to the Assad-Russian aerial and artillery mass homicide campaign against Syrian civilians would, at least in the near-term, preempt major refugee flows. The absence of the YPG from the ceasefire gives Turkey a free hand to exclude the Kurdish militia from the corridor occupied by Turkish troops in northern Syria, and perhaps more. Banking perhaps on a Trump administration review of the American policy employing the Syrian chapter of the PKK as the ground combat component of the anti-ISIS American-led coalition, Ankara may have in mind a move of its own against ISIS: perhaps in combination with Russia. Keeping a PKK-affiliate from establishing a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria will remain a top Turkish priority, along with neutralizing an ISIS increasingly bent on executing mass casualty terror operations in Turkey.

For Russia, capitalizing diplomatically on the victory in Aleppo purchased for the Assad regime by it and Iranian-assembled Shia foreign fighters is clearly a high priority. Moscow ultimately will want a broad range of Syrian opposition figures to acknowledge Bashar al-Assad as the President of the Syrian Arab Republic for at least a respectable period of time. A major part of President Vladimir Putin’s domestic popularity—somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 percent approval—centers on his campaign to defeat militarily an alleged American regime change plot in Syria. Washington, with a self-defeating mix of soaring rhetoric and stunning inaction, has been the perfect foil for Russia’s leader. It is no wonder that Mr. Putin seeks, with Turkey, to make major progress before noon, January 20th.

One would be reckless, however, to predict success for the current undertaking. Fighting continues, and there are some tricky currents to navigate.

Moscow’s decision to recognize as parties to the ceasefire armed rebel groups it labeled in the past as terrorists is unnerving to the Assad regime. No one should doubt that the Assad entourage will have a ‘vote’ in these proceedings. It is child’s play for this regime to orchestrate ceasefire violations. It calculates, with characteristic arrogance, that Putin needs Assad more than vice versa.

Moreover, Turkey’s demand that Iran and its foreign fighters quit Syria will be welcomed neither in Tehran nor Damascus. Ankara is acutely aware that Iran needs Bashar al-Assad to help it secure Hezbollah in Lebanon; that no one else in Syria will reliably serve Tehran in this manner. So, a regime ‘vote’ to undermine the ceasefire could receive important Iranian support, especially if Tehran calculates that a slippery slope leading to eventual political transition is being mounted by a Moscow wary of an open-ended, expensive commitment to a corruptly incompetent clan and entourage.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will also be an interested ‘voter.’ Many Syrian nationalist rebels have wanted to separate themselves definitively from this al-Qaeda-led organization. They have needed a general ceasefire to be able to take the first steps: otherwise it is an ‘all hands on deck’ scenario requiring a united front against Assad and Russia. Even under those circumstances, the al-Qaeda affiliate did what it could in Aleppo do to undermine nationalist, Syria-first rebels. With separation now very much on the menu, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would have a strong motivation to undermine something to which it is not a party.

There is, regrettably, no near-term prospect for the kind of thorough, Assad-gone, political transition in Syria that would kick the legs out from under ISIS (and other forms of Islamist extremism) and jump-start Syrian reconciliation and reconstruction. Russia and Iran moved decisively to save a mass murdering client. The United States and its allies—a sadly hollowed-out West—protected not a single Syrian civilian from regime mass homicide, while pursuing a desultory, Kurdish-centric ground campaign against ISIS. The result is that the Assad death grip on Syria remains in place: a situation Ankara views as one that could, over time, still empty Syria into Turkey.

Making the most of an abysmal situation may be all there is. If it takes the voluntarily initiative of Russia to stop the worst, most inhumane, most ISIS-friendly aspects of that which it has facilitated as a full participant, so be it. This, at least, seems to be the reluctant conclusion of a NATO ally that has, for over five years, waited in vain for an American Syria strategy to emerge. It will not, for sure, emerge in the next two weeks. If Moscow and Ankara can slow the mass homicide, mitigate the toxicity of Iranian intervention, and get Syrians to the negotiating table under Geneva 2012 terms of reference, they will have performed a real service.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: A Turkish soldier gestures inside a military vehicle, part of a convoy driving in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai and heading towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria January 4, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi