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Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria
Women survey the damage near the MSF-supported Al Quds hospital, hit by airstrikes in an opposition-held area of Aleppo on 27 April 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?

The fragile Cessation of Hostilities in Syria, in place since 27 February, has unraveled in the north over the last few weeks, as fighting escalated around the strategic city of Aleppo. Forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and allied Iran-backed foreign fighters mounted a new offensive aimed at encircling the armed opposition in Aleppo, the most valuable piece of northern territory currently dominated by non-jihadist rebel factions. Rebel forces have counter-attacked. Rising violence and meagre progress in delivering humanitarian supplies to besieged areas have hampered any meaningful progress at the Geneva peace talks. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura held a series of urgent meetings this week with diplomats and foreign ministers from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Russia to revive the truce, alongside high-level bilateral talks between the U.S. and Russia toward the same end.

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Syria, Noah Bonsey, looks at what is at stake.

The U.S. and Russia today announced that they have concluded arrangements to extend the Cessation of Hostilities to embattled Aleppo province, which follows earlier efforts to establish a “regime of calm” aimed at decreasing violence in the capital, Damascus, and the western coastal region of Latakia. How far would this go toward salvaging the truce?

The Cessation of Hostilities needs to be nationwide in order to be viable; or, to be more precise, it needs to include all areas not controlled by the Islamic State. It doesn’t work to pick small parts of the country as truce areas while excluding other key fronts, because doing so can simply enable the regime to divert resources from areas under truce toward escalation elsewhere. In theory, the opposition can do the same, though in practice it’s only the regime and its backers that have shown much capacity for that kind of coordinated, cross-front force movement.

The diplomatic focus is and should be on stopping the escalatory cycle of violence in Aleppo, where both sides have been attacking civilian areas indiscriminately. Regime attacks have been more systematic and had deadlier impact, but Aleppo has also seen a troubling surge in indiscriminate rocket fire by rebel groups since the Cessation of Hostilities began to break down.

It’s too early to say what, if anything, the U.S.-Russia negotiations can deliver in Aleppo. Arresting the cycle of violence on this front is a huge challenge, particularly given the extent to which the Assad regime is prioritizing the Aleppo campaign and the level of Iranian support for it. Are the Russians willing to apply real pressure in an attempt to stop the regime’s offensive there? If they are willing to apply that pressure, are they capable of actually achieving a halt in the offensive? These questions remain. But there isn’t much point returning to talks in Geneva at this stage if the escalatory cycle in Aleppo can’t be stopped.

Why is Aleppo so important?

Aleppo has historically been Syria’s economic capital and, prior to the war, was its largest city. Strategically and symbolically, it is the non-jihadist opposition’s most significant territorial asset — arguably the one place in northern Syria where the intra-rebel balance of power is clearly in their favour. Jabhat al-Nusra has some assets there, but it’s the non-jihadist groups that are dominant within rebel-held portions of the city and its northern and western countryside.

Since 2014, these rebels have faced an existential threat at the hands of two foes: regime forces aiming to surround the city, and IS forces poised to sweep through the neighboring countryside from the east. More recently, Kurdish YPG forces have added additional pressure from the northwest, and from the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood they control within Aleppo. As Crisis Group has long maintained, the defeat of non-jihadist opposition factions in Aleppo could deal a potentially crippling blow to the viability of the mainstream opposition as a whole, and thus to any prospect of a political resolution. That outcome, while perhaps favourable to the regime in the short term, would be otherwise disastrous: it would leave Syria in a state of unending war between a regime too weak, brutal and stubborn to stabilize much of the country, and Salafi-jihadist groups – namely the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra – willing and able to wage perpetual insurgency against it, reinforced by some of the rank and file of losing non-jihadist rebel groups. Jihadist groups would likely exploit the regime’s inevitably heavy-handed response to ongoing insurgent attacks to augment their recruitment within Syria and beyond.

What do you make of the announcement of a new Russian-U.S. monitoring center in Geneva to oversee ceasefire violations in Syria?

Improving monitoring mechanisms is all well and good, but does not in itself address the underlying dynamics fueling escalation. The cessation of hostilities did not break down because of a failure in monitoring. It broke down because major forces on both sides had a clear interest in eroding the truce and resuming hostilities.

The Cessation of Hostilities was accomplished in the first place primarily by U.S. and Russian bilateral negotiations. The central challenge was always the commitment of the main warring parties on both sides. The U.S. was able to convince the non-jihadist armed opposition and its regional backers to go along with the truce. That’s not surprising given that the tide of the war at that point was working against the armed opposition, so they had incentive to go for de-escalation. What was always less clear is why the regime, Iran, and Iran-backed militias – including Hizbullah and other Shiite foreign fighters – would be interested in a Cessation of Hostilities, given that they had the upper hand and the momentum in military terms.

Another party that had no apparent interest in a Cessation was Jabhat al-Nusra [the local al-Qaeda affiliate], for two reasons. First, the terms of the cessation allowed for continued attacks targeting Nusra. Second, de-escalating violence and turning attention to a political track brought out key strategic and ideological differences separating Jabhat al-Nusra from non-jihadist rebel factions, and created space for pro-opposition civilian activists to resume public demonstrations. Jabhat al-Nusra does not want a political solution — they have broader maximalist, transnational goals better served by perpetual war. And they clearly wish to avoid the re-emergence of civil society on the ground, much of which is hostile to Nusra’s ideology and in some cases allied with its non-jihadist rebel rivals.

So you have a situation in which some of the key actors on the ground – the regime, Iran, Hizbollah, and other Iran-backed militias on one side, and Jabhat al-Nusra on the opposition side – had reason to prefer re-escalation to a continued Cessation of Hostilities. The surprise then is not that the truce broke down, but rather that it lasted as long as it did.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for the separation of moderate opposition forces from positions occupied by militias loyal to Jabhat al-Nusra. How realistic is that?

Separating Nusra from other factions is much more complicated than Russian talking points suggest.

Nusra personnel are in some cases co-located and working in cooperation with non-jihadist rebels, including in areas, such as Aleppo, where the latter are the dominant force. That relationship has continued even as tensions between Nusra and non-jihadist factions have steadily risen over the last year, because the demands of the war provide powerful incentives for it.

Non-jihadist opposition factions face a regime that is far better equipped—not least of all with an air force—and receives much more robust, better-coordinated support from its state backers. There are major ideological, political and strategic differences distinguishing these opposition factions from Jabhat al-Nusra, but for now these are outweighed by the tactical necessity of coordination against a common foe. Nusra provides capacity that non-jihadist factions sorely need to help compensate for the regime’s armament advantage; for example, Nusra conducts suicide attacks against regime armour, while non-jihadist factions do not.

The non-jihadist factions, including major Islamist groups, who participate in opposition politics have defined a desired political endgame focused on ending Assad rule, while maintaining Syria’s current borders, preserving much of existing state institutions, and ensuring political and religious pluralism. Jabhat al-Nusra’s Salafi-jihadist core shares the objective of pushing Assad from power, but rejects the rest of that opposition platform on ideological and strategic grounds. If there is ever a viable political process offering a credible prospect of ending Assad rule, these and other differences distinguishing non-jihadist forces from al-Nusra’s hardline leadership will come to the fore, and are likely to prove irreconcilable.

But what is happening now in Geneva does not constitute such a process. The regime has made clear that it will not willingly negotiate towards a meaningful political transition, and its backers, Russia and Iran, so far have shown no sign that they will force it to do so. Meanwhile, the regime and Iran-backed foreign fighters are escalating against opposition forces on the key Aleppo front — an offensive they prepared for during the cessation of hostilities. These circumstances — rising military pressure, combined with dim prospects for tangible political progress — incentivize further cooperation between opposition and Nusra forces, rather than driving them apart.

Why have hospitals and medical facilities been targeted during the latest military offensive in Aleppo?

Collective punishment against civilians in opposition areas has been a pillar of the regime’s strategy from the beginning of this war. We see that in indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas; we see that in sieges of populated areas that in some cases have resulted in deaths from starvation; and we see that in attacks targeting markets and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and other health facilities. These tactics are part of an effort to raise the cost of opposition to the regime – and, in some cases, to depopulate these areas.

Up until now, the regime has faced no negative consequences from this element of its strategy. To the contrary, it has profited from it, as these tactics have helped it to crush, displace or co-opt opponents on key fronts. And so long as the regime sees little prospect of counter-escalation by its external adversaries, nor meaningful pressure from its own external backers, then of course it will likely continue to use such tactics.

Is the Cessation of Hostilities worth salvaging?

Yes. The impact of the truce, first and foremost, was a significant decline in violence in much of the country, and a decline in civilian casualties as a result. The most tangible difference in terms of civilian life was a significant reduction in regime and Russian bombardment, in particular air strikes, on opposition-held areas. The opposition in turn ceased most of its attacks. That created a level of calm that Syrians had not experienced in some time.

In opposition areas, in addition to the lives saved, you saw that the calm in violence created space for a return of civil activists to the streets. There were peaceful protests on a scale and scope unlike anything we’ve seen over the last couple of years. These were mostly protests against the regime, but there were even protests against Jabhat al-Nusra. This is indicative of the fact that a calm in the fighting – and in particular, a decline in the bombardment of opposition areas – was creating space for civil actors, and this posed a threat to the most hardline groups, namely Nusra.

Securing a meaningful, nationwide Cessation of Hostilities that includes all areas outside Islamic State control would save lives and prevent the complete collapse of the nascent political process. If the relevant powers — in particular, Russia, the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — fail to arrest this current escalatory cycle, then prospects for achieving a negotiated end to the conflict will fall further, and the transnational threats resulting from radicalization and displacement will worsen.

Hizbollah’s Pyrrhic Victories in Syria

Originally published in esglobal

Four years into its full-fledged military intervention in Syria, Hizbollah looks as mighty as ever. Together with its allies, it has saved the Syrian regime, imposed Bashar Assad as a presence, if not a partner, in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State; put paid to what it feared might have been hostile Sunni reign in Syria; secured its vital weapons supply route while gaining greater military capabilities and expertise; created a buffer zone in the Syrian Qalamoun mountains largely sealing Lebanon’s eastern border against jihadist attacks; and rallied the majority of the Shiite community behind it.

Yet, Hizbollah’s stunning successes come at considerable cost. Mirroring foes and allies alike, the party has sharpened the sectarian dimension of the conflict. Its approach has helped the Syrian regime confine the rebellion to a Sunni Islamist milieu increasingly dominated by jihadis – which also has made Hizbollah into an ever more integral element of Iran’s regional agenda. Unlike Iran, however, Hizbollah and the Shiite community of Lebanon are within easy reach of jihadis. While the party’s professed objective in entering the war was to keep radical militants away from Lebanon, in reality its intervention in Syria has amplified the danger, as a spate of attacks in 2013-2015 revealed.  

By pursuing a maximalist stance that leaves Syrian rebels with no options except to fight on and die or surrender on Assad’s terms, Hizbollah and its allies prevent the emergence of a rebel leadership capable of implementing a negotiated settlement if and when one is achieved – as even Russia appears to recognise. This creates a vicious circle, since the lack of a deal will perpetuate the Assad regime’s need for Hizbollah and other (predominantly Shiite) foreign fighters to prop up its crumbling rule.

Already, Hizbollah’s capacities are overstretched. The intervention in Syria has strained the party’s (and Iran’s) treasury, exacerbating economic problems at home. More important still is the drain on its personnel. The movement has lost more than 1,500 fighters, among them experienced, difficult-to-replace commanders, and likely will have to continue compensating for its Syrian ally’s dwindling manpower. More victories on the battlefield are unlikely to change this equation. A string of deadly attacks against regime figures and civilians in Homs and Damascus in 2017 gives a taste of things to come if the Syrian civil war turns into an open-ended, asymmetrical conflict reminiscent of post-2003 Iraq.

Hizbollah’s Syria intervention has earned it credit in Damascus and Tehran but has inflicted unprecedented damage to the acceptance and cross-sectarian appeal it once enjoyed at home and in the wider region because of its confrontations with Israel. This is perhaps the war’s greatest cost to the party: the threat of jihadist violence certainly has helped galvanise the support of Lebanon’s Shiites, yet the hostility of the region’s overwhelmingly Sunni environment likely will come back to haunt it. Hizbollah and the community that sustains it seemingly will remain trapped in a militarised, sectarian ghetto, reliant on the party’s hard power to maintain political and socio-economic gains. And paradoxically, while the Syria intervention has provided it with additional combat experience and materiel, Hizbollah is more isolated and hence more vulnerable on the frontline with Israel. Unlike in 2006, the majority of Lebanon’s Sunni community and anti-regime Syrians will likely see any future war between Hizbollah and Israel not as a national cause to rally behind but as an opportunity for revenge.

Hizbollah needs a viable exit strategy to convert its formidable battlefield success into political assets. While there is no easy way to de-escalate, let alone solve the Syrian conflict, the party, in tandem with Iran, could take significant steps in that direction. Hizbollah should reconsider and tone down its use of sectarian rhetoric, and cease to lump all armed opposition groups together as “violent extremists”. With Tehran, it should actively work to help stabilise what remains of the ceasefire, and open lines of communication with non-jihadist groups to agree on mutually acceptable forms of decentralisation, and to ease the tit-for-tat restrictions and attacks on the besieged (Sunni) villages of Madaya and Zabadani near Damascus, and the (Shiite) communities of Fouaa and Kefraya in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib.

Hizbollah and Iran should also press their ally President Bashar Assad to negotiate a political settlement and refrain from new offensives against opposition-held areas such as Idlib, which are only liable to deepen the sectarian divide. Conversely, if it continues down the road of hard power and military solutions, Hizbollah’s leadership may soon find itself stuck in the same dilemma which, some 2000 years ago, prompted the famous quip attributed to King Pyrrhus of Epirus: “If we are victorious in one more battle…we shall be utterly ruined".