As the termination of ISIS continues to be undertaken in both Syria and Iraq the questions over who is to hold what territory now that they have been conclusively eliminated as a quasi-state peace in Syria still remain to be answered. While there have been some clear winners in Syria these do not include the beleaguered populations in the remaining Opposition held territories. The US has achieved its goal of defeating ISIS on the ground, one which its shared with every other actor in the Syrian War, the Kurd’s have established themselves in the north, and the Syrian Government and its Russian and Iranian allies have effectively secured the future of the Assad regime in the short term. There are also two other organisations that have seen recent successes: Al Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Many would argue, convincingly, that these are one and the same, while few would deny that they are cut from the same jihadist cloth. The Opposition as a whole remains diverse, ranging along a spectrum of moderates, Islamists and jihadists, and the latter have consistently targeted the rest as they seek to achieve dominance in Idlib Province and southern Syria.
Despite the nominal existence of de-escalation zones brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana fighting continues in Idlib, the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and Syria’s south. The primary means by which resistance is being broken down is through airstrikes and it is increasingly likely that Ghouta will fall in the bloody manner that befell Aleppo the previous year. There is little doubt that the government has the upper hand and while Russia is indicating that it may withdraw some of its forces Iran is consolidating its position in Syria alongside its continuing influence in Iraq. In the north, Turkey has launched its own operations to secure its border area with Syria and is pursuing its own distinct course. Even in the event of an unlikely cessation of hostilities by the Opposition moderates and Islamists (which would actually be a negotiated surrender) the jihadists would remain and the unresolved questions over who would control what territory would also remain. Turkey continues to oppose Kurdish dominance in northern Syria, Raqqa’s future governance remains to be agreed, Israel wants both Iran and Hezbollah away from its borders, and any future major operation by the Syrian Arab Army to take Idlib province from HTS has the potential to be a catastrophe. This is not a complete picture but merely examples from many. Put succinctly, there are far too many interests and rivalries at the local, national, regional and global levels to allow for a comprehensive solution to the Syrian War in the immediate future.
The current hope for an Opposition-Government rapprochement is the eighth round of UN sponsored talks at Geneva, which have been extended to the 12th of December. This is part of a UN led Syrian peace process that has seen little concrete results aside from actually getting the protagonists to the same talks. Russia has suspended its own conference at Sochi while the talks continue. The parallel talks at Astana have produced the de-escalation zones in the past, but these were more along the lines of an enforced agreement as opposed to a negotiated one. The US recognises the Geneva talks only, with those at Astana being dominated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. This does not mean that the US and Russia don’t cooperate on the fringes of the talks, as they generally meet in the background and both have an interest in resolving the Syrian War. The trouble, of course, is that they each want it to be on their own terms and differ over such matters as Kurdish involvement and the future status of Assad. The latter has consistently proved to be a sticking point at Geneva, with each side having their own preconceived and incompatible ideas regarding Assad and refusing to budge. The most likely outcome from Geneva VIII is that nothing substantial will be agreed, particularly as one side (the regime) holds the upper hand and has no reason to change its position when it believes it can win. The only thing that will break the deadlock is an acceptance by the newly reformed Opposition negotiators that Assad remains in the short to medium term. In the long term, the Assad regime is unsustainable and any future Syrian government will be a result of negotiation, compromise, and conciliation. This is the case in all civil wars where the intention is to keep the country intact and it takes a long time to get there with key requirements being that the violence stops and the guilty from all sides are held accountable. The Syrian War will reach this point but it will require the regional and global powers whom have helped fuel the War to cooperate towards achieving a state of nonviolence. The question is as to when. Each round of mediation and negotiation is a step closer to this, and the focus will move to Sochi, then Astana, and back to Geneva and also include the generally unsung mediation and negotiation at the local, national and regional levels.
This is, however, of little consolation to victims of the Syrian War and the people of Syria who deserve better.
Next week: Egypt’s turmoil in the Sinai.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator