Can Anyone Stop the Syrian War?
A new cease-fire brokered by Washington and Moscow just went into effect. But there’s a long list of ways the deal could fall apart.
As the sun set in Syria on Monday, the country’s citizens — and the United States and Russia — all hoped the guns of war would fall silent. After marathon negotiations, Moscow and Washington reached a deal in the morning hours on Saturday to reinstate the failed “cessation of hostilities” negotiated last February, enable humanitarian assistance to reach besieged areas in Syria, and pave the way for U.S.-Russian military cooperation targeting the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.
The deal will begin with a 48-hour cease-fire, starting Monday evening. If it holds, the United States and Russia will begin jointly targeting the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — the group formerly known as the Nusra Front — fulfilling a long-standing Russian demand.
The next step would be to use the agreement as a springboard for reaching a negotiated settlement to the conflict, by relaunching the stalled U.N.-led negotiations in Geneva. The U.N. special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, will consult with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sept. 21 about setting a date for the next round of intra-Syrian talks. Although the Syrian government declared its support for the deal, President Bashar al-Assad vowed on Monday that he will keep fighting the “terrorists” to reclaim all of Syria.
Skepticism abounds that this deal will succeed. Many argue that at best it will provide a short reprieve for Syrians living under daily bombardment by regime planes and suffering from starvation under sieges imposed by the Syrian army and pro-regime militias. A short-term improvement, however, is not nothing: As a survivor of the 15-year Lebanese civil war — during which hundreds of cease-fire deals were negotiated, only to be violated shortly thereafter — I can attest that even temporary reprieves mean a lot to people living in fear for their lives.
The deal’s success or failure hinges on the United States’ and Russia’s ability to force their allies on the ground to abide by its terms. Moscow’s record in sticking to its commitments and forcing the Assad regime to live up to international agreements, however, has been feeble. Russian bombing raids have abetted Assad’s ground forces laying siege to opposition areas, and the Kremlin recently rejected a U.N. report that found the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in violation of Security Council resolutions.
Beyond the trust gap, there is the simple fact that Washington and Moscow do not agree on the principal driver of the Syrian conflict. For Washington, the Assad regime is the central reason the war has spiraled out of control — it has irrevocably lost its legitimacy, U.S. officials believe, and can no longer restore the status quo. For Moscow, it is the terrorist groups sowing chaos in the region that deserve the lion’s share of the blame. These different diagnoses lead to different prescriptions: Washington prioritizes a diplomatic process that will transition Syria’s leadership away from Assad, while for Moscow there can be no end to the conflict until terrorist groups are denied a safe haven and state institutions, especially the military, are in control of security.
Despite these important disagreements, the United States and Russia have good reason to keep pursuing coordination in Syria. Moscow remains the only actor in the pro-regime coalition that — with a political agreement in place — could live with a new leadership in Damascus. It has the political and military capacity to act on that belief if it decides to do so. If Washington believes that the only way out of the Syrian conflict is a managed political transition, it has no option but to continue testing Moscow’s interest in a leadership change in Damascus.
Russia rejects the concept of ousting Assad not because it believes its interests in Syria are best served by keeping him in place, but because it is not confident it can secure an orderly transition. Since 2012, I have participated in multilateral and bilateral Track II Dialogues on the Syrian conflict — to date, the principal area of disagreement is the status of Assad. In conversations with Russian interlocutors who are close to Moscow’s political and military decision-making circles, it is the question of who would replace him — and how to achieve this transition without it devolving into chaos — that tops their list of concerns. Play a word association game with them and the phrase “managed transition in Syria” conjures up three words: Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
Russian officials believe that any attempt at leadership change in Damascus through a military intervention would fail and lead to chaos: à la Iraq post-2003 and Libya in 2011. They argue that Middle Eastern societies cannot be democratized and that outside forces, especially the United States, are the least capable agents to effectuate democratic change in the region.
Instead, they argue that the best-case scenario is to arrange a power-sharing arrangement between Syria’s different political and societal components — including Assad. Moscow believes the Syrian military can, if given enough time, engineer and guarantee this arrangement. One preferred scenario for the Russian generals is the installation of a military council to oversee a transition period in Syria, akin to the February 2011 takeover by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt. Early in the Syrian conflict, this scenario was also floated in an internal report by the Gulf Research Center, a Saudi think tank.
There are at least three problems with this scenario. First, Moscow still does not see a role for the Free Syrian Army in this military council and has not sufficiently thought through how it can force the armed opposition groups to accept this proposal. Second, the Syrian army — battered by five years of war and increasingly eclipsed by the foreign militias fighting on Assad’s side — is in no condition to play the central role in a political transition that Moscow envisions. Third, the Assad family has been ruthless in eliminating anyone they suspect of being a contender for power. It will be very hard to entice Syrian generals to get on board with this idea — they would be risking their lives.
The cost of the Russian military intervention in Syria, in both lives and rubles, has so far been manageable. However, as the campaign reaches its one-year mark, officials in Moscow are increasingly concerned about the mission timeline. They have been down that path before in Afghanistan, and they do not want to find themselves again fighting an endless war on behalf of an unreliable local ally. They worry that as time passes, the cost-benefit ledger in Syria will no longer be in their favor. Moscow also understands that absent an international “buy-in” for a credible political transition plan, funding will not be available for any post-conflict reconstruction of Syria. And Russia, which is currently laboring under international sanctions, is not interested in footing the reconstruction bill itself.
To complicate matters, Moscow and Washington are far from the only international players in Syria. Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are also prosecuting their own proxy wars there and have higher stakes in how the conflict unfolds than either the United States or Russia. Getting these countries on board is critical to any effort to de-escalate the Syrian war.
Turkey is increasingly becoming the indispensable player in the Syrian conflict. Ankara now sees the conflict in Syria through a domestic lens: It is more about the Kurds and less about Assad. For Ankara, a Syrian Kurdish fiefdom on its border under the control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party, has been a long-standing red line. Turkey has long considered the YPG a terrorist organization and fears such a fiefdom in northern Syria would stir up greater unrest among its own Kurdish minority. Ankara and Tehran, which have long been on opposite sides of this conflict, can build common ground on the basis of their shared rejection of Kurdish independence.
There is also some convergence on how the major international actors in Syria view Assad’s position going forward. Turkey, the United States, and Russia all agree that he can play some role during the transition period — even as they disagree over the parameters of this role and what happens to him and his small entourage after the transition. Despite recent statements by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir that Riyadh’s and Ankara’s stances “fully coincide with each other,” Assad’s participation during the transition period remains a point of contention between the two countries. Still, Riyadh is willing to let Turkey play a leading role in Syria partly because it trusts Ankara more than either Washington or Moscow and partly because Syria is now a distant third priority for a Saudi leadership that is increasingly consumed by its own domestic economic woes and the war in Yemen.
Although Turkey has announced its support for the recent U.S.-Russian deal, keeping it on board with the agreement will be a primary challenge for U.S. diplomats. Ankara will not be in favor of attacks that target its Syrian armed proxies, some of which have tactical alliances with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. These ties are based on military priorities and not ideological affinities. The extremists have played a key role in trying to break the siege of rebel-held Aleppo, and many more moderate groups are loath to reject any force that could help them achieve that goal.
Friction with Turkey is just one of the many ways that this deal could fall apart. In the short term, so many different players could bring about its failure: Assad could not live up to the terms of the agreement, Saudi Arabia could play the spoiler if it feels its rebel proxies are being targeted, or Iran could undermine the deal if it fears that U.S.-Russian military cooperation is strengthening the rebel factions.
Still, we are at a stage where international stakeholders are closer to an understanding on Syria than they were a year ago. This is partly the result of multiple rounds of painstaking negotiations over the past four years and partly due to evolving political dynamics, which have created new common ground among warring parties. Nobody should expect the regime in Damascus to change: Time and again, Bashar al-Assad has proved that he will not transition himself out of power. The question is whether or not this agreement can push Assad’s patrons to seriously entertain his exit from the political scene — and thus take a giant step forward to ending this war.
Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images