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Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It
Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It
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.

Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It

With the war in Syria set to continue well into 2017, many of the conflict's core challenges remain unresolved. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, we encourage the EU and its member states to use future funding and reconstruction as a lever to ensure that meaningful progress is made toward an overarching political settlement.

This commentary on the war in Syria is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The fall of eastern Aleppo to regime and allied forces is a potentially pivotal moment in the Syrian war. Employing familiar tools–including massive collective punishment of the civilian population and reliance on foreign militiamen–the capture of Aleppo removed a uniquely valuable card from the opposition’s hand. It also dealt a staggering blow to non-jihadist factions, which had dominated the city’s rebel-held neighbourhoods and whose defeat has long been a priority for Damascus. Having achieved such a significant gain at manageable cost, the regime will be tempted to push on with additional offensives employing a similar playbook. If Damascus and its allies do so against other well-populated opposition strongholds – such as Eastern Ghouta, the western Aleppo countryside, and parts of Idlib province – casualty and displacement levels will soar. Under this scenario, options for a meaningful settlement or negotiated de-escalation will constrict further. Preventing it calls for a clear understanding of what points of leverage exist to influence the decision-making of the regime and its allies.

The Regime’s Limitations

Even as it notched up a coveted win in Aleppo, the regime’s limitations and vulnerabilities remain on full display. Regime forces defending the city of Palmyra proved no match for a December attack by the Islamic State (IS), which quickly seized the city for a second time – less than nine months after Damascus and its allies had hailed its recapture as a signature achievement. The lesson was clear: while the regime, Russia and Iran are capable of employing sufficient violence and resources to gain ground against opposition forces on top-priority fronts, these campaigns leave them vulnerable to attacks elsewhere.

There is no indication that Russia on its own has the will and capacity to deliver sustained ceasefire compliance from Damascus, much less meaningful political concessions.

The regime seeks to eventually retake all Syrian territory, and Bashar al-Assad has depicted victory in Aleppo as a springboard for further offensives against rebel strongholds. Yet, he cannot dictate priorities on his own; taking and holding additional ground in the north west would require significant help from Iran-backed militias, and even that support might prove insufficient if not accompanied by Russian airpower. Much is in the hands of Tehran and Moscow, who each have their own agendas in Syria.

Iran and Russia’s Differing Agendas

While Iran has tended to share the regime’s enthusiasm for targeting remaining opposition territory in western Syria – the most strategically valuable swath of the country – Russia’s priorities are more ambiguous. It has often appeared more concerned than its allies about overstretch of pro-regime forces – a significant risk that will increase if they attempt to advance into Idlib. The dominant rebel factions controlling Idlib (Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham), though riven by divisions, are likely to prove more capable than their Aleppo counterparts. Moscow’s manoeuvring in the immediate aftermath of the Aleppo victory suggests it is in no rush to test the waters in Idlib, choosing to focus on an expanded diplomatic track with Turkey rather than additional military offensives. It seems to want a political process amenable to its interests and preserving (and eventually rebuilding) regime structures; it may be less concerned about the regime restoring its authority over all of Syria, especially if this would mean further regime exhaustion and fragmentation. Moscow has also signalled more openness to a decentralised post-conflict Syria than is currently evident in Tehran or Damascus.

Russia and Turkey: Prospects for a Ceasefire?

Russian-Turkish engagement produced a ceasefire agreement in late December which has lowered violence in parts of the country – in particular the north west – but which appears unsustainable. As in previous “Cessations of Hostilities” negotiated by Moscow and Washington, prospects are limited by the fact that key players on each side – the regime and Iran on one hand, and Fatah al-Sham and a smattering of other opposition hardliners on the other – appear to view adherence to the ceasefire as detrimental to their own interests. The fact that Fatah al-Sham is expressly excluded from the ceasefire, and that its forces in some areas fight alongside rebels who have joined the truce, leaves room for manoeuvre for those on either side who want to continue military operations. Regime and Iran-backed forces have done just that against opposition-held pockets outside Damascus. Here they have arguably benefitted from the decline in rebel activity immediately resulting from the ceasefire, while virtually guaranteeing that the truce (and whatever constraints it imposes on regime ambitions) will be short-lived. And as long as pro-regime offensives against opposition forces elsewhere continue, Turkey’s willingness and capacity to restrain its rebel allies in the north will erode. Indeed, a pair of rebel attacks on regime forces in Lattakia and Hama provinces on 9 February, launched following an uptick in regime airstrikes in central and northern Syria, suggests that what remains of the ceasefire is crumbling.

The same dynamic limits the prospects of talks between regime and opposition delegations, including those that took place in Astana in late January – another product of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement – and scheduled for Geneva in late February. Even if Moscow and Ankara are serious about using talks to reinforce the ceasefire and pave the way for a meaningful political track, their means of achieving either are limited. There is no indication that Russia on its own has the will and capacity to deliver sustained ceasefire compliance from Damascus, much less meaningful political concessions. Forcing the regime’s hand would likely require Iranian help, which is unlikely so long as Tehran prefers to focus on pursuing battlefield gains in areas it deems critical to its interests. Uncertainty regarding the new U.S. administration’s stance on Syria further muddies the waters; actors on both sides of the conflict are keen to create favourable facts on the ground while U.S. engagement is minimal, but are unlikely to make fundamental shifts until they have a sense of Washington’s intent.

The regime, as witnessed with Palmyra, lacks the capacity to reliably hold much of the territory currently outside its control once it has seized it (let alone stabilise or govern those areas). Yet it can achieve gains in the short run as long as Iran-backed militias and Russia are willing to provide the necessary manpower and air support. The result could be a harrowing continuation of civilian casualties and displacement. This may also render non-jihadist portions of the opposition politically irrelevant, and remove any prospect of their asserting the upper hand over jihadist rivals. That, in turn, would reduce whatever opportunity remains for a meaningful settlement or negotiated de-escalation. It would shift the main conflict to an eroded regime’s counter-insurgency campaign against well-entrenched jihadists, backed by foreign firepower and reliant on collective punishment.

Map of Syria. International Crisis Group

Limiting Further Catastrophe

Preventing that grim scenario should take priority. Though the European Union (EU) and its member states have played only marginal roles in the conflict’s military and political dynamics, their potential to help fund stabilisation and reconstruction provides leverage – all the more so because the regime’s backers are unlikely to be willing or able to do so. They should employ this to discourage the belligerents’ maximalist objectives and incentivise compromise within the pro-regime camp. Toward that end, they should reaffirm, and unite behind, the credo no reconstruction without credible transition, clarifying that they will provide reconstruction funding only within the context of a political settlement which has buy-in from the conflict’s regional players and a critical mass of the non-jihadist opposition.

European governments eager to minimise the displacement and radicalisation resulting from the conflict must resist the allure of wishful thinking.

European governments eager to minimise the displacement and radicalisation resulting from the conflict must resist the allure of wishful thinking. Bashar al-Assad will not negotiate his own departure, Moscow and Tehran have shown no willingness to push him toward the door, and current momentum suggests neither of those realities will change in the foreseeable future. However, accepting that the pro-regime camp has the upper hand, and providing reconstruction funding in absence of a credible settlement, does not offer plausible means of addressing Europe’s primary concerns. Due to the regime’s weaknesses, and the depth and breadth of animosity toward it, a robust insurgency is likely to continue. The regime would combat it with the same collective punishment tactics and militias it has employed throughout the conflict, fuelling additional displacement and radicalisation. The regime would also resist meaningful reform, encouraged by its military victories and the fact that it won’t be able to rule huge chunks of the country and population except through threat of overwhelming brutality.

Europe by itself cannot address these problems solely by applying conditionality to reconstruction funding, as the regime’s will and capacity to evade commitments far exceeds Europe’s will and capacity to enforce them. Instead, funding for reconstruction in government-controlled areas would likely be diverted toward the regime’s war effort. This, in turn, would further erode Western credibility, and provide dangerous incentives to authoritarians embroiled in conflicts elsewhere.

 Escaping Syria’s vicious cycles requires a settlement agreed among and facilitated by the conflict’s main external players – Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. – and tolerable to a critical mass of Syrian combatants on both sides. It must take into account not only the current battlefield power balance, but also Syria’s geopolitical and demographic realities; otherwise the remaining insurgency may prove uncontainable. The EU and member states should make clear that reconstruction funding will await such a settlement, and is contingent upon its continued implementation. In the meantime, European diplomacy can further explore potential components of such a settlement, including decentralisation allowing local governance in areas currently outside regime control.