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Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It
Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts as he attends a news conference after a meeting with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow, 23 March 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia’s Choice in Syria

Many questions surround Moscow’s surprise announcement of a force reduction in Syria. Yet it clearly enhanced Russia’s leverage over the regime and provided a much-needed dose of credibility to the nascent political process. Avoiding further regional unravelling and spiralling radicalisation, however, and pushing the conflict toward an initial settlement will require further adjustments in Russia's strategy, including addressing the Assad conundrum.

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I. Overview

In announcing Moscow’s intent to withdraw the “main part“ of the military assets that it deployed to Syria since last September, President Vladimir Putin again caught much of the world off-guard, this time allies and adversaries alike. Having decla­red victory while maintaining its war-fighting capacity in Syria, Russia has left key questions unanswered: will it actually reduce its military role and, if so, to what extent, where and against whom. But if it implements the announcement in a meaningful way, this could create the best opportunity in years to push the conflict toward an initial settlement, especially on the heels of Moscow’s decision to help implement a “cessation of hostilities”.

This much is clear: Putin’s announcement underlined crucial points distinguishing Russian aims from those of the Assad regime and enhanced Moscow’s leverage over Damascus. It also, for the moment at least, increased Russia’s investment in the fledgling, fragile political process it is co-sponsoring with the U.S.

This much is unclear: having battered Syria’s non-jihadist rebels nearly to the brink of defeat but not over it, what sort of political and military arrangements will Moscow seek? Will it aim to cement battlefield gains, while maintaining a less aggressive posture in the hope that reduced violence will encourage the U.S. to drop any active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and to increase coordination with Moscow against jihadist groups? This option is consistent with Russia’s general approach to the conflict, but would entail an open-ended military commitment, offer little prospect of improved stability and possibly play to the jihadists’ advantage.

Alternatively, will Moscow push for a more robust settlement that has a chance of stabilising the country – at least those parts the regime and non-jihadist rebels control? That would require an additional, political outlay: most importantly, delinking its own interests in Syria from the person of Assad – and, ultimately, convincing Iran to do the same. If Moscow wishes to avoid further regional unravelling and spiraling radicalisation, this is an investment worth making.

Istanbul/New York/Brussels, 29 March 2016

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.