Two days of talks over the war in Syria ended this week in Astana, Kazakhstan. Iran, Russia and Turkey were the main powers at the table. Kazakhstan was a perfect location for the talks, since it has close ties with both Turkey and Russia. The Syrian government and the armed opposition sat together for the first time in six years. The Syrians came to the table, but they were not party to the final agreement. In the end, the three powers came to an understanding, which is itself a matter of great significance since these powers were major rivals on the Syrian battlefield.
Lack of external support
Wars end either with a decisive victory or in exhaustion. In Syria, neither condition has been reached. What drives the ceasefire talks is the recognition that the major proxies of the armed opposition — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the U.S. — have withdrawn. Turkey has decided that this war has spilled over into its territory, which could break the country apart. Saudi Arabia, stuck in the Yemeni quagmire, finds that its proxies can no longer compete with Russian air power. The U.S., which failed to create a moderate army, now understands that the most capable fighters on the ground against the Syrian government are not to be trusted. This lack of external support brought most of the armed opposition to Astana, where they took their seats uncomfortably.
The principal dispute at the table was how to define the ceasefire. The armed opposition, led by Mohammed Alloush of Saudi Arabia’s proxy, Jaysh al-Islam, wanted a national ceasefire. Syria’s government and the Iranians are keen to remain effectively at the local level. This would allow them latitude to strike rebel targets where they are seen to be weak and then sue for peace when they have attained their objective — what is on display in the suburbs of Damascus. The three powers agreed upon a mechanism to monitor the ceasefire, although this does not cover those who did not come to Astana.
It is those who were absent who hold the cards for the next phase. Turkey’s main proxy, Ahrar al-Sham, did not come to Astana, but uncharacteristically it sent its blessings for the deliberations. It might, in time, join the process. The two parties that are outside the ceasefire are the Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaeda proxy, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). These groups have attempted to peel away fighters from those who went to Astana, saying that the negotiators shame the ‘revolution’. The JFS has intensified its retaliatory war against the rebels, such as against Jaish al-Mujahideen and other Free Syrian Army (FSA) outfits in the region around Aleppo. U.S. air strikes against the JFS have not stopped it, since the U.S., like the IS, sees itself in a fight to the end. Whether the withdrawal of its external supporters or its political isolation will demoralise its fighters is to be seen. Sources in these groups tell me that they hope JFS fighters will strengthen their will in the fight against the FSA. Turkey has made it clear that isolation of the JFS will allow other rebel groups to appeal to its members on patriotic grounds for an end to the bloodbath. Whether this is a realistic assumption is to be seen.
A serious conundrum
The Syrian government, buoyed by the battlefield victories, notably in Aleppo, is nonetheless faced with a serious conundrum. Its military is weakened, a fact demonstrated by the rapid advance of the IS into Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor, towns at the two ends of the Great Syrian Desert. The IS seizure of Deir ez-Zor has left 93,500 people without regular access to food and medicines. Overstretch of its forces, reliance upon Iranian and Lebanese fighters, and Russian tactical support means that it cannot continue this fight indefinitely. Apart from the IS and the JFS, the Syrian government will have to deal with two problems: the disgruntled Syrian Kurds (whose political aspirations have been suppressed as a cost for Turkish involvement), and the Islamist armed opposition who came to Astana but refused to describe Syria as a secular state. The contradictions are stark and Damascus’s ability to bring these factions together is not visible.
Peace is a process, not a state. It will take time for the various parties to acknowledge that this is a pyrrhic battle with no victor able to fully dominate the country. From Astana the negotiations move back to Geneva, where the UN hopes that more progress will be made. So do the broken Syrian people.