There is a general feeling of pessimism among Syrians towards the first round of peace talks taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan. For years, Syrian rebels were rightly blamed for being divided and unorganized, obstructing the creation of a united alliance as a credible alternative to the Syrian regime. But now, competing agendas among the Syrian regime’s backers are considered the main obstacle to efforts to end the Syrian conflict.
The fragmentation of command among pro-regime forces makes enforcing discipline difficult – pro-regime militias have repeatedly spoiled agreements brokered by Russia to decrease the violence. Although the same challenges also apply to rebel groups, Turkey’s total control over the only support routes to rebel groups in northern Syria has pressured them to follow Turkey’s instructions, or at least to avoid opposing them. In contrast, the Syrian regime’s backers have sharply diverging agendas.
Russia’s interest, after successfully securing the Syrian regime, lies in ending the Syrian conflict as soon as possible. The Kremlin seems keen to transfer its role in Syria from a military actor into a peacemaker as a way to maintain leverage. In the long term, Moscow’s objective is to restore a strong state with functioning institutions and a monopoly over arms.
On the contrary, Iran’s vision is to maintain strong proxy militias, as it does in Lebanon and Iraq, to protect its long-term interests in Syria and the region. Iran believes that its military operations in the country should continue after victory, in order to dictate a solution that secures its influence in a post-war Syria.
Iran has thus on a number of recent occasions instructed its allied militias to act against Russia’s instructions. During the regime’s latest offensive to capture the rebel-held part of eastern Aleppo, Russia, in cooperation with Turkey, brokered a deal to allow civilians and rebel groups to be displaced to other rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Iran, which was allegedly not consulted, pushed its proxies to sabotage it. The deal was then revised to include Tehran’s demands of evacuating people out of the two rebel-besieged Shia towns of Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib.
Moscow has also cooperated with Turkey and brokered a ceasefire with rebel groups to pave the way for the current peace talks. Iran, which allegedly did not ratify the ceasefire agreement, instructed its client Hezbollah to violate the ceasefire and continue its attack on the town of Wadi Barada in rural Damascus. Hezbollah also allegedly blocked Russian officials from entering the town in an attempt to end the attack.
There are other challenges to peace. Local militias, benefiting from conflict economy, may try to act as spoilers, as will some rebel groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and like-minded extremists. But the majority of these groups are already excluded from peace talks, while the rest are considered insignificant.
The real challenge ahead relies on bringing the regime and its allies together to respect the confidence-building measures and the shaky ongoing ceasefire. Peace talks, therefore, must not be organized only across regime–opposition lines, but also among the regime’s allies.
Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements. Prior to that, he was a programme manager on Syria and Iraq at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung-Middle East Office in Beirut.