12 April 2019

Syria’s future between Astana format and the US pullout

Claudiu Nebunu

Image source: Mediafax

There are quite times in Syria. The idea of stopping the conflict starts to be replaced with concerns about country’s reconciliation and reconstruction. Damascus regime remained in power, and situation’s future management mechanisms have been reduced to Astana format. However, the Russia-Iran-Turkey conjuncture alliance is facing bigger challenges when the “enemy” is missing, given that each part’s particular interests are brought on the table again. The US withdrawal, wished and claimed by the three Astana format actors, is rather undermining their unity. We will see if the Astana format will survive to US’s withdrawal. One thing is for sure: Syria will remain a weak state, a confrontation camp for the regional powers. At the same time, this situation can be a leverage to get help in overcoming the situation.

Eight years since the beginning of… the “end”

In March 2011, the pro-democracy demonstrations, inspired by the Arab Spring tendency, began in Southern city of Dara’a. The regime acted forcefully against the participants, but manifestations spread throughout the country. The repressive measures intensified, regime’s opponents got weapons, the violence quickly escalated and the country was swept up by the flames of the civil war. Several countries and groups, each with its own agenda, were involved in the conflict complicating the situation and prolonging the fighting. Sectarian rivalry has been exploited by supporting Sunni majority against the Shiite Alawite sect of President Bashar Al-Assad, and Kurds’ actions to gain an autonomous status have added a further dimension to the conflict. These breaks within society have led to both camps committing atrocities and, even more, to terrorist organizations’ proliferation.

The results? A country with destroyed infrastructure and decimated population- over 367 thousands of dead, more than 190 thousands disappeared and supposedly dead, plus 1,5 million of handicapped people, 6,2 million internally displaced, 5,6 million refugees abroad, of which 93% in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights-OSDU). A serious humanitarian crisis- over 13 million people need humanitarian assistance, of which 5, 2 in an emergency. However, the same regime- Al-Assad managed to remain in power, and loyal forces took over the control of the country again, except for Kurdish-controlled North-East, and two areas still under rebels’ control (in North-West, respectively South).

After the relative stabilization of this situation, is now a time to talk about the end of the “end” and a new beginning or violent actions will break down again? What are the mechanisms for managing the situation and the difficulties in stabilizing the country?

Too many actors on stage…

Initially, regime’s key supporters were Russia and Iran, while Turkey, Western powers and several Gulf countries supported the opposition. Under the anti-terrorist actions, air strikes the Russian air forces executed in Syria have targeted rebels’ main objectives.

Iran has deployed thousands of troops and has spent billions of dollars in support of Assad. Thousands of Shiite militia members – most of them Hezbollah fighters, but also from Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen, armed and trained by the Iran, fought together with government forces.

Turkey supported the rebels, but it has also followed their use to counteract the Kurdish militias actions, accused of being an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (KWP) in Turkey, an organization considered terrorist by both Turkey and the EU. The rebels supported by Ankara control the North-West of the country, along the Turkish border.

Originally in a neutral position, Israel subsequently resorted to various actions to counteract the expansion and strengthening of the Iranian influence in Syria.  

The US, Great Britain and France have initially offered support for the rebel groups, seen as “moderated”, but after the Jihadists have become dominant in the armed opposition, they have offered priority to non-lethal assistance. Starting with 2014, an international US-led coalition has executed air raids against the Islamic State from Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and has supported the efforts of an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in its efforts to recover the territories ISIL has conquered in East of Syria.

Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to combat Iran’s influence, supported part of the rebellious groups, while the Qatar rival offered support to other opposing formats.

From the Genève format to…Astana format

Efforts for peace in the Genève format have started back in 2012 (which brought together supporters of the opposition in Geneva and Vienna), aiming at choosing a transitional governing authority. But they got to no answer in nine rounds of negotiations mediated by UN. The pre-conditions imposed by foreign actors, Assad’s refusal to talk with the opposition, divisions between various opposition groups and, especially, claim that Assad's giving up power to be the basis of any reconciliation process has made the Geneva process failing. 

Too much concern about the political solution without concrete efforts to stop the violence on the ground.

In response, at the end of 2016, Russia, Iran and Turkey have made peace efforts by imposing a cease-fire agreement between the government forces and rebels. In January 2017, talks were launched in Astana (Nursultan, capital of Kazakhstan) between regime’s representatives of the regime and opposition’s ones, under the mediation of the three countries-guarantor. This is how the Astana format was founded (with meetings in Tehran, Sochi respectively). There were other reunions as well, wherein there were established armistices, different initiatives (escalation area, creating a commission to write a new constitution), but also revealing a series of divergence on the reinforcement of the Iranian influence, Kurds’ issue, rebels in the Idlib area etc.…

A different approach, stabilizing the situation on the ground being at the forefront, followed by the political situation…

Results? Surpassing the Genève format, maintaining the Syrian regime and taking a few steps forward to stabilize the situation … Astana remains, at least for now, the only tool to normalize the situation in Syria…

Occasional cooperation- the emergence of an impossible alliance

The Astana format came from an almost impossible to imagine conjuncture alliance: the history of relations between the three countries, the positioning in contemporary alliances, the different interests… nothing of all of this could have produced the slightest hint of such a rapprochement…

Originally, the US and Turkey were on the same boat regarding the Syrian file. Both have wanted Bashar Al-Assad gone and both considered Russia and Iran as rivals. But the US is changing its strategy. During and after the Cold War, the US strategy was to use economic and political methods to “better the world” and, whenever it failed, it directly used military power. After 9/11, the military involvement, sometimes occasionally, became permanent and, for a decade and a half, the US has supported extensive military operations. Such a constant globally military activity is impossible to maintain, even by the US … Even worse, in the Middle East this strategy proved to be ineffective. The US has reduced its direct military presence and, as a consequence, in Iraq for example, Iran’s presence has become more influential at a political level than Washington. The US has come to rely on Kurds to promote its own interests. Hence, when an anti-Assad coalition was formed in Syria, the US naturally joined the Kurdish communities from the Turkish-Syrian border.   

This coalition has complicated the US relations with Ankara.  Regardless of long-term concerns of Turkey about Iran and Russia, these were eclipsed by the American-Kurdish alliance at the border. Besides morality, Turkey shares borders with Syria and noted the expansion of Kurdish militias and combat experience they gained in North-East of Syria against ISIL. Iran is committed in a fierce battle between Shiites and Sunnis and saw in Syria an opportunity to strengthen its influence. The situation in Syria has given Russia a chance to reposition itself as a major power. The US involved to destroy ISIL and stop Iran, but largely from habit, admitting that US interests in Syria are limited due Washington current redefinition of strategy in the region.

With the US moving away from the problem, the three countries continued to examine the next steps needed to normalize the situation in Syria. On long-term, cooperation is not reliable. The Turks want to limit Russia’s power to the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Iranians hold still remember Soviet occupation of Northern Iran during the World War II and treat Turkey as rivals. Iran is also trying to increase its influence in the region, which is not seen favorably neither Russia nor Turkey.

The next meeting in the Astana format will take place this month. Washington does not want to negotiate with the Syrian regime. Other countries have different positions.

Challenges for Astana format 

Firstly, it is noteworthy that if last year the issue of halting the war was discussed, new directions on rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation are now emerging. Iraq and Lebanon have showed their interest in becoming part of the Astana format, the stabilization of the neighboring country, Syria. Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said these countries’ participation will help to reach an effective agreement not only for Syria, but also for its neighbors.

However, beyond these sparks of hope remain dark clouds… Astana format’s last meeting took place on February 14th in Sochi reply or not (?!) Warsaw Summit, but certainly the first one after US president’s announcement, Donald Trump, on the pullout of US troops from Syria.

Three topics dominated the Astana talks: the future of the Idlib opposition, measures to manage the situation after the US withdrawal from Syria, and ways to boost the formation of a constitutional commission, a key point in implementing a political solution.

Idlib: in 2017, the Astana format agreed to implement the so-called “de-escalation zones” in four areas in Syria: Idlib province, Northern Homs province, the Eastern periphery Ghouta of Damascus, respectively in Dara’a and Quneitra. Regime’s actions, supported by Russia, managed to annihilate the rebels in three areas, leaving only Idlib. The new issue is that, apart from the region's original rebels supported by Turkey, Hay’et Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a rebel group affiliated to Al-Qaida, took the control over almost the entire area.

Russia and Iran want the annihilation of terrorists / rebels in the latter area, while Turkey delays consent to this course of action, on the one hand because of the potential influx of refugees (there are about 3 million people living in Idlib) and, on the other hand, to speculate the situation in the opposite direction to the Kurds in Northeastern Syria. 

US withdrawal: wished and claimed by the three Astana players, the US withdrawal seems to undermine their unity rather than a step towards stabilizing the situation in Syria. The main issue is the Kurdish community from North of the country, seen by Turkey as a direct threat. Ankara repeatedly called for the disarmament of the Kurdish militias (especially YPG/ The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, perceived as a PKK filiation). Furthermore, the Turkish request includes also the establishment of a zone "buffer" to a depth of 30 km inside Syrian territory, along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Iran wants to get the Kurdish area under the Syrian regime control, Russia seems to agree with the Turkish demand, but only with the approval/ in coordination with the Syrian regime.

For now, Turkey is just spinning out, along with negotiations with the American side (not only on the subject of the Kurds in Syria) … It is likely to be put in a much better position than Russia and Iran and push the Kurds towards the Damascus regime. If not, Russia and Iran will reap the fruits. Finally, Moscow's goal is for Ankara to recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian regime ...

The constitutional commission: is the first step, after the military defeat of the opposition towards a political transitional process. In January 2018, in Sochi, Russia hosted the Syrian Congress for National Dialogue, an event attended by regime’s representatives, as well as of some parts of the opposition supported by Turkey. Also, the former UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, was present at the congress. Finally, an agreement was reached: creating a commission to draft a new constitution, with 150 members: 50 proposed by the Syrian regime, 50 opposition and 50 UN, including representatives of civil society and technocrats.

Since then, the establishment of the last third of the commission has raised disputes between the Astana partners, each attempting to influence the selection of these members, who can incline the balance towards to the regime or to the opposition. There were some steps, but no final agreement was reached.

Another challenge for Astana is the US position, until now supporting the Genève format and and against any arrangement by which Russia would dictate the terms of a political solution in Syria.

The US military withdrawal from Syria does not clarify whether Trump’s lack of interest in Syria extends to the future of the political process. But one thing is certain: the current Administration in Washington is not comfortable with the Astana format. And the withdrawal decision has created some important breaches inside the Astana format…

The prospects for a settlement remain only at the level of converging assertions that American withdrawal is a positive move, and that Astana's format is great for communication, exchange of ideas and seeking peace solutions in Syria. In the real cooperation plan, things are much more complicated. And no solution can be found on the horizon. On the contrary…

And yet, the future …

Undoubtedly, the US withdrawal could create a disaster. Turkey could invade North of Syria to crush Kurdish forces; Russia and Turkey may face a dangerous situation. Israel could start a war against the Iranian forces in Syria. Thus, the conflict in Syria could extend to the entire Middle East.

These scenarios are plausible… but not inevitable, if more conditions were met: all foreign forces to leave Syria (including Saudi-supported Jihadists, Turkish-backed fighters, those supported by Iran and the Russian troops); UN to support Syrian government sovereignty over the whole country; the UN peacekeeping troops to guarantee Kurds safety; Turkey to commit not enter in North of Syria against the Kurds; to rebuild Syria. 

Even with these ambitious assumptions, Syria will be a weak state in the short and medium term and short term, probably for more than 10 years. Exhausted after the civil war and destroyed by ethnical and religious divisions, it will try to focus its military forces mostly over stability’s guarantee. The civil war has left the Syrian cities ruined, with destroyed economy and a population which is internally and externally refuged. The reconstruction costs are estimated to hundreds of billions of dollars.    

Syria will probably remain a battlefield for the regional competition. Although the Assad regime is no longer threatened, but it is not controlling the entire territory of the country yet, and rival states could continue to support rebel formats to prolong the civil war. Turkey will probably continue to threaten, even attack, the Syrian Kurds. The financial, logistic and humanitarian involvement of Tehran in the conflict has brought it an extremely big influence in Syria, so the Assad regime remains dependent on Iran to stabilize the situation for good.

Of course, Syria may resist to the Iranian influence, or at least limit it, but this scenario is less likely, even if some encouraging signs seem to support the hypothesis. Several countries in the region (Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon) have maintained relations with Damascus during the war, and Sudanese leader, Omar Al-Bashir, visited Syria in December 2018. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) re-opened the embassy in Damascus, and lately has been re-considered the idea of Syria's republication in the Arab League.

On the other hand, the neighbor countries, for example Jordan, are aware of the risks associated with continued instability in Syria and seek to cooperate with the regime, especially in issues regarding borders. Several European states, especially Germany, are under public pressure because of the refugees and prefer their repatriation. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan where there is the majority of the refugees, are feeling their presence even more, economically and security speaking. Syria can use the refugee’s card to request reconstruction support, and affected states, using this humanitarian coverage, could act to normalize relations with the Damascus regime.   

Moreover, the terrorism issue may be another leverage for Damascus in its international support requests.

But no one is currently launching a long-term race. The Russians want to be seen as US counterpart, the Iranians want to fill the gap left by the Americans, and the Turks want the US to stop supporting the Kurds. There is no common understanding on what is actually happening in Syria, apart from the fact that the US, even if it withdraws its armed forces from the region, still remains the power to be positioned foreach actor involved.

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