As U.S. Stands Aside, Russia, Turkey Ink Cease-fire in Syria

Moscow and Ankara may have just done something Washington tried in vain to do. But it could ultimately mean victory for Assad.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) speaks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul on December 3, 2012. Putin arrived in Istanbul on December 3 for a landmark visit due to focus on resolving differences with Turkey over the 20-month crisis in war-ravaged Syria. AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOLGA BOZOGLU        (Photo credit should read TOLGA BOZOGLU/AFP/Getty Images)
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) speaks with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Istanbul on December 3, 2012. Putin arrived in Istanbul on December 3 for a landmark visit due to focus on resolving differences with Turkey over the 20-month crisis in war-ravaged Syria. AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOLGA BOZOGLU (Photo credit should read TOLGA BOZOGLU/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia and Turkey have brokered the most ambitious cease-fire to date aimed at ending the 6-year-old civil war in Syria, an ironic twist given the absence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent years searching in vain for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The cease-fire, which goes into effect at midnight local time, sets the groundwork for the end of Western and Arab support for a rebel-backed overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and paves the way for a potential negotiated settlement, the long-stated desire of the Obama administration.

U.S. and Western powers expressed cautious optimism about the agreement, though many analysts cautioned that it could easily unravel. The accord is the third nationwide cease-fire agreed to this year. The other two, brokered by the United States and Moscow, collapsed within weeks amid violations by both sides.

Notable after years of shuttle diplomacy from Kerry was the utter absence of the United States from the latest round of talks. Some analysts said that Washington’s lack of involvement made a deal more likely, though it will also mean ceding a short-term victory to Assad and Moscow.

“The absence of the United States is important because it has enabled this truce to be negotiated,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. U.S. insistence that Assad must go, and continued, if lukewarm, support for opposition rebels, made Washington an awkward fit in this latest solution, he said. “By remaining quiet and absenting itself from these talks, [Washington] is allowing an Assad and Russian victory.”

The cease-fire covers 62,000 rebel fighters, as well as Syrian government forces and their allies, according to information released by the Russian and Turkish governments. Russia and Turkey will oversee the truce and coordinate through a special military hotline.

Moscow promised to end aerial bombardment and artillery shelling that has devastated the opposition and resulted in countless civilian casualties. Ankara promised full compliance by a large group of opposition forces with the cease-fire, including any type of shelling of Syrian or Russian positions.

All sides agreed that operations against the Nusra Front and the Islamic State will continue as before, though U.S. military officials have long complained that Russian jets rarely target Islamic State fighters, instead labeling all groups fighting the Assad regime “terrorists,” including those backed by the United States.

There is plenty of skepticism that the cease-fire will prove lasting. Despite Turkish pledges, most of the opposition militias have not signed on to it, potentially leaving scattered pockets of resistance active against the Assad regime, which could trigger renewed hostilities by Damascus and Moscow. It’s often difficult to separate one group from the other on the battlefield, and local, temporary alliances and fluid front lines have led some American military officials to describe the battlefield as “marbled” with Nusra units mixed amid more moderate groups.

There is also the question of the multiple Iranian-backed groups on the ground fighting for the Assad regime. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have suffered real losses over the past several years, and Shiite groups from Iraq and Afghanistan have joined the fight. They are recruited and supplied by their Iranian patrons, but a U.S. defense official recently told Foreign Policy that Moscow has been exercising overall command and control over these various groups, further deepening the Russian stake, and responsibility, for the Syrian endgame.

Pointedly, the cease-fire won’t include the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been doing most of the fighting in northern Syria against the Islamic State. Additionally, Osama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army rebel group, said Thursday that the Syrian Kurdish PYD political party would not be part of Syria talks planned in the coming weeks in Kazakhstan.

The exclusion could mean continued flare-ups of violence between Turkish-backed groups and the American-backed YPG. The Kurdish militia has American commandos embedded in its ranks as the fighters push toward the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. The Kurdish question has long been a point of contention between Ankara and Washington, and there is little sign that this latest cease-fire will ease tensions on that front.

On Thursday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the cease-fire a “positive development” and said the United States would work to support renewed peace negotiations in Geneva to prop up the agreement. “Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives, and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome,” Toner said.

But the group that sealed the latest cease-fire seems determined to forge ahead without Washington — for now, at least. The Russian foreign ministry announced Thursday that it would work with Turkey and Iran to facilitate talks on Syria in Kazakhstan — though no timeline was given as to when those talks might begin. Turkish officials said the Kazakhstan talks would complement, not replace, ongoing efforts by U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura in Geneva.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in what seemed a pointed final shot at the Obama administration, said the United States would be welcome to take part in the accord once President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20.

“I would like to express my hope that after the administration of Donald Trump assumes its duties, it will also join the efforts [on a workable Syrian peace deal] in order to channel this work into one direction [based] on friendly and collective cooperation,” he said, according to Russian media reports.

The agreement forged between Russia and Turkey reflects a change in both countries’ calculus. Russia has discovered tolerance for rebel groups it branded just months ago as dangerous terrorists. Russian state-sponsored media in particular had demonized Ahrar al-Sham, which Russia Today said in September had “committed various war crimes” and was responsible for “most of the violations of the cease-fire in Syria reported by the Russian military.”

Lavrov told RT that same month Ahrar al-Sham was linked to the al Qaeda-backed Nusra Front. He added that it “seems the Americans are listing a part of a terrorist structure, which is recognized as such by the U.N., as an organization loyal to them.”

In April, Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, asked the international body to add Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam — both of which were fighting the Assad regime — to a blacklist that includes the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Churkin said that the two groups are “closely linked to terrorist organizations.” Jaish al-Islam has also been the target of heavy Russian bombing.

Russia’s about-face reflects Turkey’s newfound willingness to rein in rebel groups it has long supported against Assad. “Turkey is putting the militias on notice that its border will be closing to them and that the world will turn its backs on the military effort to make Assad step aside,” Landis said.

And that could ease the way for the political solution long favored by Assad and the Russians: an end to international support for the Syrian insurgency, allowing Damascus to end the conflict on its terms.

“The regime will negotiate amnesty with militias it can deal with, and will kill or chase out of Syria all those who refuse to sue for peace, or whom it considers unredeemable or jihadists,” Landis said.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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