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Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Can High-Stakes Diplomacy Save Syria’s Battered Truce?
Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next
Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next
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.

A poison hazard danger sign is seen in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Syria, on 5 April 2017. ANADOLU AGENCY/Ogun Duru

Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next

Poison gas and missile response have heightened tensions over the Syria conflict. Washington and Moscow should respond to the new risks by pursuing their stated common interest: sufficient de-escalation of the war's violence to establish a meaningful political track toward settlement.

Whether one believes they were the long-overdue response to the Syrian regime’s brutality, a one-off event that will not affect the conflict’s trajectory, a risky step that could prompt military escalation or all of the above, the 7 April U.S. missile strikes on Syria’s Shayrat air base in response to the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons should be seized upon as an opportunity to jumpstart diplomatic efforts. The strikes have heightened tension between Moscow and Washington. Yet, this added volatility and the risks attached to it could and should prompt more serious pursuit by the two countries of their purportedly common interest: de-escalating violence sufficiently to establish a meaningful political track. This can be best achieved by deepening rather than breaking off U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The Trump administration framed its strikes, involving 59 Tomahawk missiles fired from two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean, as a proportional response to what both the U.S. and such independent on-the-ground observers as the group Médecins sans Frontières concluded was a sarin attack near the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on the Damascus-Aleppo highway on 4 April. It identified the target as the air base from which it said the aircraft that carried out the attack had taken off. It highlighted efforts to alert Moscow beforehand and avoid casualties among both Russian and Syrian personnel. And it noted that while the decision to punish the regime militarily for chemical attacks was new, its broader policy of prioritising the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and pinning the hoped-for departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the results of a political process remains in place. In other words, the military action appeared intended to be narrow in scope, an attempt at limiting risk but offering correspondingly relatively modest rewards: deterrence of further chemical attacks.

In the U.S. and Europe, as well as in many Middle East countries, the Trump administration’s decision brought relief to those who had bemoaned President Obama’s reluctance to order more forceful U.S. military action to protect Syrian civilians from regime atrocities and, for some, even oust the regime. Others deemed it a risky gambit, taken impulsively and outside the framework of a forward-looking strategy, that would not change the fundamental course of the war and inadvertently could trigger an escalation, if not a direct military confrontation, with Russia or Iran. Some saw it as a bit of both: a welcome response that only would make sense – and avoid unintended consequences – if immediately accompanied by efforts to put Syria’s collapsed ceasefire and faltering political talks back on track.

Now that both sides have made their largely symbolic moves, the moment has arrived to return to diplomacy and de-escalate tensions.

The risks are indeed significant. If, for example, regime chemical attacks were to continue (perhaps employing chlorine instead of the much deadlier nerve agent sarin), the U.S. might find itself compelled to launch additional, more significant strikes and accept the increased risks, or forfeit whatever deterrent effect and credibility boost it had hoped to achieve. High-casualty regime attacks employing other weapons, such as barrel bombs, likewise may generate pressure on Washington to decide whether to expand its deterrence or be seen as signalling that atrocities that do not involve poison gas are tolerable. There also is the related challenge of managing U.S. allies in Syria and the broader region, whose expectations may now rise disproportionately to what the White House is willing to do in their support.

The biggest risk, direct escalation with the regime’s principal backers, Russia and Iran, can be expected to grow in the event of additional U.S. strikes. Iran’s militia network has the capacity to retaliate against U.S. interests throughout the region. Moscow presents an even bigger and more immediate concern: Russian and U.S. jets share the Syrian skies, and Russian personnel and equipment are integral components of the regime’s air-defence systems. This means not only that Moscow can severely constrain Washington’s capacity to carry out airstrikes crucial to its efforts against ISIS in eastern Syria, but also that an accident or miscommunication involving aircraft or ground personnel could set off an extremely dangerous escalatory spiral. Underlining this concern is the fact that Moscow has already announced its intentions to suspend participation in the de-confliction channel its forces and those of the U.S. use and beef up the regime’s air defences. It also has dispatched a frigate carrying cruise missiles to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Now that both sides have made their largely symbolic moves, the moment has arrived to return to diplomacy and de-escalate tensions, lest an opportunity be wasted and the situation spin out of control. Despite the brief display of U.S. military muscle, Russia remains in the driver’s seat in the Syrian conflict, given its assets on the ground and in the air, as well as its alliance with the regime, Iran, Hizbollah and associated militias. While Washington can hope to influence Moscow’s behaviour, Russia doubtless will take the lead in shaping the course of events.

During a visit to Moscow that coincided with the Khan Sheikhoun attack and the U.S. missile strike, Crisis Group encountered deep frustration about the presumed lack of U.S. appreciation for what Moscow considers to be its constructive effort to end the war and prevent the country’s dissolution. Despite the public bluster, Russia is also clearly weary of further escalation and a complete unravelling of its diplomatic efforts at effecting a ceasefire and jumpstarting political talks, and apprehensive about the soundness of its Syrian ally. Some Russian analysts also expressed concern about the damage Russia’s reputation might suffer from what they considered the regime’s graphic and blatant breach of an agreement on the regime’s chemical arsenal and chemical weapons use that Moscow itself initiated. (This is the 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program, and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 endorsing that agreement.)

Whatever wisdom one might assign to the latest U.S.-Russian tit-for-tat, it has potential to advance a better way forward. Rather than merely seeking to restore the pre-2013 status quo concerning non-use of chemical weapons, the U.S. and Russia should take steps jointly to prevent a direct confrontation and pursue what both have identified as an immediate interest: reducing violence between the regime and its non-jihadist opponents. This is essential to save lives but also could enable a shift of resources toward the fight against ISIS; obstruct efforts by Tahrir al-Sham (a jihadist coalition led by a former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) to assert hegemony over the opposition’s non-jihadist factions; and, over time, pave the way for a credible political process.

The first step should be to define the terms of a viable ceasefire between the regime and non-jihadist opposition. Elements of truces attempted in 2016 and early 2017 could provide starting points. Trading U.S. counter-terror coordination with Moscow in exchange for an end to regime air attacks outside ISIS-held areas merits renewed discussion. Including Turkey, Iran and Jordan as co-guarantors alongside Moscow and Washington would be necessary to achieve a critical mass of leverage over the warring Syrian parties. Recognising spheres of influence held by the conflict’s many players is nobody’s idea of a perfect peace, but currently it offers the most realistic path to a sustained de-escalation that could create space for a political process addressing Syria’s governance and geopolitical dilemmas.

The U.S. and Russia should take steps jointly to prevent a direct confrontation and pursue what both have identified as an immediate interest: reducing violence between the regime and its non-jihadist opponents.

For a new ceasefire to succeed where others have failed, however, Russia, the U.S. and their regional partners will have to be more realistic in addressing the challenges posed by Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates much of the rebel-held north west and holds territory close to non-jihadist forces. Its exclusion from previous truces has increased its incentives to act as a spoiler and provided a loophole through which the regime and its allies have continued to pummel opposition-held areas (using its presence, real or fabricated, as a pretext). To have any chance of success, a ceasefire must include – at least for a defined period – areas in which Tahrir al-Sham is present but does not exert unilateral control. This would provide time, space and political capital for the U.S. and Turkey to work with rebel allies to address the Tahrir al-Sham problem before it strangles them.

Though they support opposing sides, Washington and Moscow appear more realistic about the need for eventual compromise than their respective Syrian and regional allies. Russia is pinched between an unreliable ally in the Assad regime, which, for all its brutality, is incapable of winning the war; an all too capable ally in Iran, able to defend its interests in Syria even when they diverge from Moscow’s; an adversary in Turkey which, nominal rapprochement notwithstanding, has little incentive at present to do Moscow favours; a formidable military power across the occupied Golan in Israel, which is sceptical of Russia’s intentions and ability to rein in Hizbollah and acts against it even in proximity to Russian forces; and an unpredictable rival in the Trump administration, which, for all its professed desire to avoid foreign entanglements, may find stoking crisis to its political benefit. Russia for the most part has successfully balanced among these competing forces, but it cannot do so forever. The chemical weapon attack and U.S. response are examples of destabilising events that are bound to increase and at some point slip out of Moscow’s control.

Ultimately, U.S. and Russian realism will be needed to seriously begin a process that could lead to an end of the conflict. What happened in Khan Sheikhoun points to the horrors ahead and of their dangerous regional and perhaps even wider international ramifications if the situation is left adrift. Whether the U.S. attack on 7 April was prudent or reckless is beside the point: what matters now is to turn it into an opportunity to initiate steps that reduce the violence in Syria, so that the unspeakable civilian suffering eases and a political process finally has a chance.