A New Ceasefire for a New Year
Turkey confiscated supplies from a Russian plane destined for Syria, Saudi Arabia armed the Syrian rebels, and the Free Syrian Army continued to benefit from the better equipped, funded, and experienced al-Qaeda fighters. This was 2012 in the war in Syria.
Not much has changed as Syria nears the sixth-year anniversary of the conflict. In 2012, Ed Husain wrote that the fate of Syria rested with the Syrians. It sounded idealistic then and sounds unrealistic now. The fate of Syria depends on a multitude of foreign actors with varying stakes in the conflict.
Turkey and Russia have just taken the lead and brokered an uncertain ceasefire agreement. A political move calculated to project influence, the ceasefire will likely fail to lead to lasting peace in Syria.
The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey raised concerns over the viability of the burgeoning Turkey-Russia partnership. Yet, both countries reaffirmed their close ties the day after the assassination and released a joint statement, the Moscow Declaration. Ankara and Moscow quickly followed it up with a Syrian ceasefire agreement ten days later.
Instead of a carefully calculated move to establish peace, the ceasefire should be seen for what it actually is – a rushed attempt to present President-elect Donald Trump with a fait accompli come Inauguration Day. U.S. partners in the region have already expressed concern over Trump’s Syria policy, or rather his vaguely articulated statements on Syria. Given Trump’s reluctance to communicate a clear approach to the Syrian conflict and his calls for closer cooperation with Moscow, Russia likely saw the ceasefire as an opportunity to preempt any future U.S. involvement in Syria.
Further, Russia would like to paint the fall of Aleppo in December as the decisive end to the conflict. In light of this, the ceasefire comes at the heels of the successful attempt by the Syrian government to retake Aleppo from the Syrian rebels. The narrative, of having established lasting peace in Syria, would serve Russia’s interests on both domestic and foreign fronts.
Domestically, Russia could tout its successful use of military power to shape regional events in order to safeguard its interests, in this case–the continuity of the Assad regime. As an added bonus, Moscow will likely emphasize how it was able to confront the United States in the region and win peace on its own terms. The recent ceasefire excludes both the United States and the United Nations and the location of future negotiations has shifted from Geneva, Switzerland to Astana, Kazakhstan. On the foreign front, Moscow will likely tout its role as a regional and international power-broker.
As such, the recent ceasefire emerges not as a viable attempt to establish peace, but rather as a show of force and power. While the ceasefire has largely held, violations were already reported the day after the announced truce. Whether the ceasefire lasts another month or half a year, the underlying issues would hinder its use as a basis for lasting peace.
In the agreement, Turkey nixed President Assad’s departure as a precondition for a political solution. However, not all of the Syrian rebel groups would support a political solution that keeps the Assad regime in power. Excluded from the ceasefire agreement, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda faces little incentive to lay down arms.
At the same time, having ensured a symbolic victory in its capture of Aleppo, the Assad regime will likely favor the complete military defeat of rebel forces over a political solution. As for Turkey, Ankara participated in the negotiations as a way to advance its role in the region. The fact itself that Turkey brokered the ceasefire presents more benefits for President Erdogan than the actual end to hostilities. In other words, Turkey has little to gain from a negotiated peace to the conflict that fails to account for Turkish interests.
Russia and Turkey built a ceasefire for the New Year on the basis of old interests and considerations. Russia seeks to prop up the Assad regime and deter a more direct U.S. involvement in Syria. For its part, Turkey seeks to emphasize its role as a regional power.
With the underlying factors largely unchanged, the Syrian conflict will likely continue well into the New Year and the ceasefire will enter the list of unsuccessful attempts to end the civil war in Syria.