New international talks aimed at ending the Syrian conflict may be unlikely to succeed, but they do mark shifts in the alignment of competing forces.
The United Nations Security Council unanimously voted on December 31 to support a ceasefire in Syria that started the previous day. The latest round of international peace talks are scheduled for January 23 in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.
There have been many rounds of international talks aimed at ending the conflict in Syria, which has raged for almost six years, killing half a million people and displacing 11 million. None have been successful.
The latest talks are no more likely to end the conflict, but do reflect changes in both the situation in Syria and the alignment of regional and global powers involved in the conflict.
The location of the talks partly reflects this. Previous rounds were usually held in Geneva under UN auspices, with the US playing a prominent role. The Astana talks are being brokered by Russia and Turkey, who also brokered the December 30 ceasefire signed in the Turkish capital, Ankara. The US was not asked to take part.
However, UN-sponsored talks in Geneva are scheduled for February and UN special envoy on Syria Stefan de Mistura has endorsed the Astana talks, stating: “We hope Astana strengthens the cease of current hostilities and generates favourable conditions for the political dialogue we want to re-establish at the beginning of February.”
As in previous internationally brokered talks, the Syrian parties represented are the regime of Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups loosely affiliated with the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition — only two sides in a multi-sided conflict. The rebel groups have been threatening to boycott the talks, citing ceasefire violations but unhappy at the central role being played by Russia.
However, the ceasefire was signed in the wake of the rebels being driven out of eastern Aleppo, which they had held for more than four years. Their weaker position makes some participation likely. Further, many of the rebel groups are materially dependent on Turkey, a key sponsor of the talks.
Foreign forces were decisive to the Assad regime’s victory in Aleppo. Russian air strikes were most significant, but ground forces included Iranian troops, Iranian-backed militias from Iraq and fighters from the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Outside forces have helped shape Syria’s civil war from the start. The decisive shift in Aleppo stemmed, in part, from the dramatic warming of the relation between the authoritarian rulers of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Talks between Russia and Turkey on the eve of the regime’s victory in Aleppo appear to have included agreement that Turkey would ask armed groups it supported to leave Aleppo and cut aid to those who refused.
Outside forces helped militarise the uprising against Assad in 2011, although it was Assad’s resort to military force against peaceful protesters, and the defection of some of his military to form the Free Syrian Army in response, that started the conflict.
Because Syria was a major ally of Russia and Iran, and had supported Hezbollah's resistance to Israel in Lebanon, the West was willing to funnel arms to opposition groups. For the same reason, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have fought to keep Assad in power.
Outside forces were also significant in fracturing the opposition, although the FSA was always an umbrella covering a number of independent military units.
Western aid channelled through regional allies run by Islamist regimes led to Islamist groups proliferating among the armed opposition.
The Syrian conflict became a magnet for Islamist extremists worldwide: veterans of other conflicts were joined by alienated youth from the West. Western support for the rebels became more lukewarm, as policymakers tried to distinguish between “moderate” and “extremist” Islamists — the distinction based entirely on their attitude to the West.
Turkey’s goals in Syria changed after the grassroots democratic, feminist social revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) in 2012 because of that revolution’s ideological affinity with the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey and broader Turkish progressive opposition. Turkish policy in Syria became intertwined with Erdoğan’s attempts to strengthen his rule and crush opposition at home.
One result was the rapid rise of ISIS. The unspoken secret behind ISIS's rapid rise to become a major military force in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, and the world’s most notorious terrorist group, was Turkish aid — in the aftermath of other Turkish-backed Islamist groups failing to crush the Rojava revolution.
The rise of ISIS changed Western goals in Syria. ISIS’s 2014 invasion of northern Iraq, along with its extreme violence, support of terrorist attacks in the West and stated objective of world domination, made it an easier enemy than Assad to sell to a war-weary Western public.
The West continued to provide arms and diplomatic support to the rebels (now affiliated with the SNC), but the air strikes launched by a US-led coalition since September 2014 have targeted ISIS.
Since the defeat of the ISIS siege against the Rojava town of Kobanê in 2014, the US-led coalition has been coordinating its air strikes with the armed forces of the Rojava revolution — the People’s and Women’s Defence Units (YPG/J). However, in 2015 it welcomed NATO-member Turkey as a partner in the “coalition against ISIS”, ongoing Turkish support for ISIS notwithstanding.
US policy has been contradictory: recognising the YPG/J as the only force willing and able to beat ISIS in ground combat, while politically supporting the SNC.
The Rojava revolution has spread beyond the Kurdish areas where it began. During the siege of Kobanê, the YPG/J forged an alliance with armed groups based outside the Kurdish community, including some FSA groups. As the revolution spread, more groups joined the alliance.
The US has recognised the YPG/J-led Syrian Democratic Forces as its main military ally on the ground against ISIS. Yet it has worked to exclude it from peace talks.
Meanwhile, as the Assad regime lost territory to its multiple enemies, Russian support for the regime increased. Russia began air strikes in 2015, like the West using ISIS as a pretext but directed mainly against SNC-affiliated rebels and other Islamist groups.
Turkey and Russia
In November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet, hoping that fuelling NATO-Russia conflict would force the US to see the SNC-affiliated groups as more important allies than the SDF. It had the opposite effect, fuelling an increasing perception by the Obama administration that Erdoğan was an erratic and unreliable ally.
SDF victories against ISIS continued and the long-held aspiration of liberating the whole of Rojava got close. Achieving this would give the SDF control of a contiguous strip of territory along the Turkish border.
Erdoğan changed his strategy. Unable to rely on ISIS to crush the Rojava revolution, he decided to commit Turkish ground forces. First he made efforts to improve relations with Russia, apologising to Putin for shooting down the Russian plane.
He gained immediate benefits. The first was a diplomatic card to play with the US, naturally disconcerted by seeing a NATO member draw close to Russia. The US supported Turkish forces invading northern Syria last August.
The Turkish force occupied the border town of Jarabalus with little resistance from ISIS, suggesting possible collusion.
For years, both Russia and the US have hinted at partitioning Syria. Assad has never been keen on this idea. However, the retaking of eastern Aleppo with the confinement of rebels to an enclave around Idlib and the Turkish-occupied area around Jarabalus would make it more palatable.
In the final analysis, if Russia agrees to partition, Assad has no choice.
On January 3, the Turkish pro-government Daily Sabah reported that Russia and Turkey were coordinating air-strikes against the strategic northern Syrian town of al-Bab, which both the SDF and Turkey wish to take. Reuters reported that the US provided Turkey with air support.
The war in Syria is not ending, but its configuration is changing. Previously it centred on two conflicts, sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting — between the regime and the rebels, and between the Rojava revolution and ISIS.
The rebels are now being reorganised as auxiliaries of the Turkish army or defeated. Particularly in Idlib, there is resentment among rebels at Erdoğan’s betrayal. However, to what extent they’ll accept their new allotted role fighting against the SDF on behalf of a Turkish regime that abandoned them to their enemies remains to be seen.
ISIS is close to being defeated in Syria. In the wake of its defeat, the Rojava revolution has spread to become a revolutionary force in broader areas of northern Syria. Behind the SDF is the revolutionary system of “democratic self-administration” pioneered in Rojava.
On November 30, the Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria — the areas under “democratic self-administration” — declared their system “to be a democratic solution for the future of Syria and a system to guarantee an exit from the current crisis and to prevent social collapse.
“In addition, the administration experience we have achieved since the July 19 revolution that occurred with the participation of all peoples has posed an example for all of Syria.”
The Constituent Assembly changed the name of the federation from Democratic Federation of Northern Syria-Rojava, removing “Rojava”. This emphasised that their aim is a democratic Syria, not Kurdish separatism.
Stopping this democratic Syria is the aim that unites Erdoğan and Assad and this will define the next phase of the conflict.