by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*
It is evident at this point that Syria’s war is not a civil war. It is a world war and now the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia emerged out of the shadows of their regional allies to take charge. Early this year, the two countries reached an agreement called Cessation of Hostilities (CH), initially effecting select cities but open to be applied across Syria. The Cessation of Hostilities is simply a bilateral understanding between the U.S. and Russia. It is not a peace accord nor is it an armistice. It is something in between necessitated by the complex map of groups fighting the Syrian government. This CH automatically excluded any and all groups labelled terrorists by the UNSC, including the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its offshoot, al-Nusra Front. In theory, any armed opposition group can be party to this deal provided its members–or a representative thereof–contact monitoring centers staffed by Russian personnel, since Americans are not authorized by the Syrian government to be on Syrian soil, overtly at least. The deal worked in bring some calm to some areas and gave many Syrians some hope.
Earlier, al-Nusra Front, fearing isolation, merged with other groups forming Jaysh al-Fath. With the start of the CH regime on February 27, 2016, al-Nusra used this alliance to launch attacks in northern Syria, virtually collapsing the CH regime. This week, Secretary Kerry announced a new plan, perhaps just and updated one, that could put Syria back on track for a political solution. It might actually work. There are a number of reasons for our optimism.
One of the main reasons behind the failure to solve the crisis in Syria lies in the nature, composition, and regional sponsors of the Syrian opposition. The strongest opposition groups are extremist Salafists and fighters affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The three main supporters of the Syrian opposition fighters, Qatar and Turkey (strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Saudi Arabia (sponsor of Salafism), have insisted from the start that the overthrow of Assad supersedes the defeat of al-Qaeda and its derivatives (mainly ISIL, al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam). These three countries have principally nothing in common except their shared disdain for Assad. Consequently, their alliance of convenience could not last. So it did not.
Within a year or so, and seeing that Russia and China twice blocked UNSC resolutions that could have authorized the use of force against the Syrian government, the Qatari ruler, Hamad Ibn Khalifa Al Thani, realized that that path he has taken was very difficult. The Emir abdicated and transferred power to his son, Tamim. This move offered the tiny but influential country a way out of a crisis it cannot manage and left Saudi Arabia and Turkey leading the efforts to overthrow Assad.
Initially, these two countries, despite their differences over the status of the regime in Egypt and position on the Muslim Brotherhood politics and ideology, decided to stay united on Syria. Their strategy consisted of continued support to rebel groups, initially organized under a loose umbrella organization called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting under the green and black flag, to ensure the fall of the Syrian government, not weaken any of them. The transfer of arms and money supposedly to the FSA, somehow, benefitted al-Nusra and ISIL, too. Within months from the start of the armed conflict, the FSA became all but a shell that provided cover to ISIL and al-Nusra. When the latter two groups grew confident and self-sufficient, they abandoned the FSA flag, raising their own black flags over large territories, forcing FSA groups out.
When ISIL declared its caliphate and took control of key cities and provinces in Syria and Iraq, the U.S. formed a coalition dedicated to fighting ISIL, essentially creating two kinds of opposition groups in Syria: ISIL and the “legitimate opposition.” However, the U.S. and its allies conveniently avoided defining “legitimate” opposition.
In theory, this coalition was to fight ISIL, exclusively. In reality, the this coalition has had two objectives. The coalition bombed ISIL territories from the air, but also provided weapons and training for the so-called “moderate rebels” who would fight both–the Syrian government and ISIL. The efforts paid off on both fronts. While the air campaign limited ISIL advances, the influx of sophisticated weapons to “moderate” fighters, including al-Nusra, allowed them to take over territories previously under government control, threatening even Assad’s stronghold, Syria’s coastal region. This prompted Russia to send troops and airplanes, upon a request from Assad, to help him regain control of the territories his troops lost. He did regain control within about five months. Russia’s intervention created a new balance of power. Importantly, it also offered the anti-ISIL coalition a channel through which to talk to the Syrian government.
The Russian intervention in Syria created a unique challenge for Turkey, especially, since it benefited from Syria’s oil sold by ISIL and was able to limit Kurdish gains. Russia’s intervention strengthened the Syrian Kurds and shut down the flow of Syrian oil. Turkey, reacted angrily, shooting down a Russia bomber near its border with Syria, prompting President Putin to impose crippling economic sanctions and grounding Turkish planes with the insertion of Russia’s sophisticated S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system. These measures forced Turkey’s powerful president to rethink his approach to the Syrian crisis. After nearly five months of refusing to apologize for the incident, Erdogan sent a letter to Putin doing just that and urging Putin to normalize relations. Putin obliged, lifting the ban on travel to Turkey and promising to consider other steps once Turkish authorities take actual steps to address other concerns.
Turkey’s economic and security woes, made real by the July 15 failed coup, have forced the Turkish president to speed up his rapprochement with Russia. His office announced that he will travel to Saint Petersburg on August 9, where he will meet Putin to put their bilateral relations back on track. However, normalizing relations with Russia necessarily requires Turkey to drop its demand for overthrowing Assad and fight terrorism instead. That much was made clear by the Russian leaders upon receiving Erdogan’s letter of apology. Erdogan’s unhappiness with U.S. and European governments may compel him to, minimally take a neutral position regarding the fate of Assad, or side with Russia to maximize return from his overture on Russia. Either of those outcomes will reduce the anti-Assad alliance to one country, Saudi Araba.
The shift in Turkey’s position on Syria is making the rulers of Saudi Arabia nervous since they will be the only ones insisting on prioritizing ousting Assad over fighting terrorist entities. Signs that Saudi Arabia is feeling the isolation already emerged during the last Arab League Summit held this week in Mauritania. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have set the agenda and tone of the outcome of the League’s summit in the past five years. This time, however, Saudi Arabia failed not only to have the Syrian opposition represent Syria during the meeting, but also failed to convince the League to invite it even as observer–a huge change compared to the summit held in Qatar when Syria’s seat was filled by the head of the Syrian opposition, Moaz al-Khatib.
In addition to this game-changer event involving Turkey, a couple of other events created new conditions that are forcing key parties to the armed conflict in Syria to adjust their roles and expectations.
First, Iraq’s success in retaking Fallujah in a relatively short fight against ISIL dispelled the notion of invincibility projected by that puritan group and its supporters. Should the Iraqi forces succeed in retaking Mosul, ISIL will be practically out of Iraq and will resort to suicidal terrorist attacks against Iraqi civilians. Without dislodging ISIL from major cities in Syria, the threat of terrorist attacks will be significant. Moreover, Iraqi gains could be easily reversed should ISIL remain in control of cities and towns along the Syrian borders. Iraqi leaders know this and to prevent that from happening, they announced that they will work with the Syrian government to help the latter retake the city of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.
Second, the rise of the number of terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S., and other countries is forcing more people in countries that ignored ISIL in the past to push their governments to focus on fighting terrorism–not on overthrowing the Syrian government.
These significant changes are keeping U.S. top diplomat, Secretary Kerry, very busy adjusting U.S. strategy on Syria. He travelled to Russia spending about ten hours with Putin and an additional four hours with his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. On Tuesday, Kerry said that he will be in a position to announce a robust plan for coordinating efforts with Russia on Syria early next month, signaling the significance of the agreement he reached with the Russian leaders, which would require review and approval by his boss, President Obama, and national security policymakers.
The outstanding problem between the U.S. and Russia has been the lack of coordination of military efforts fighting terrorism in Syria. The U.S. and its allies are insisting on limiting military strikes to ISIL. Russia wants to fight ISIL and other terrorist groups, including al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Although the U.S. recognizes al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, it had not targeted it, perhaps out of respect for some of its allies who are known supporters of al-Nusra and the allies of al-Nusra.
Publicly however, the U.S. administration justified its exclusion of al-Nusra from military strikes by arguing that territories controlled by al-Nusra and “legitimate” opposition are mixed. Russia is not convinced because it is using a different standard. Russian leaders want the Cessations of Hostilities regime to be the determining factor of who should be targeted and who should not be targeted. They argue that if the opposition groups are committed to a political solution, they should stop fighting and move out of the areas controlled by fighters who reject a political solution. The new plan, which will include at least part of Russia’s reasoning, will enable U.S. and Russia to bypass their differences over the identity of terrorist entities and the fate of Assad. Should the new plan use this criterion, terrorist groups will not be able to avoid being targeted by changing their names or breaking their public affiliation with known terrorist organizations.
A new strategy that takes into considerations these complex issues would replace the untenable, self-serving one proposed by the backers of the opposition groups who argued that the Syrian regime will not agree to a political solution unless the opposition forces gain the upper hand. Five years of relying on a strategy of indiscriminately arming and assisting all groups fighting the Syrian government forces to attain that questionable goal did not work. A strategy that calls on a political dialogue involving only groups that agree to Cessations of Hostilities might work. This strategy could even allow U.S. and Russian military to work together on stabilizing a region in so much need for peace and development.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.