What’s at Stake in the Syrian Peace Talks in Astana?

What’s on the agenda for the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan?

Here in Astana, the spotlight is on the talks between the Syrian government and members of the armed opposition, but this is largely theatrics. Indeed, among the diplomats, journalists and analysts waiting in the hotel lobby and pub, there is a growing sense that we are also part of the show. The more substantive event involves trilateral discussions among Russia, Turkey and Iran, yet little has been revealed about their content.

The very fact that Russia, Turkey, and Iran are driving the talks – with limited participation from the U.S. as an observer, and none at all from Saudi Arabia – reflects the extent to which the centre of gravity in the Syrian war has shifted. This is the result of military progress by the regime and its backers, declining U.S. influence (for the moment at least) in the conflict’s central power struggle, and Riyadh’s stepping back from a role in Syria (due to its Yemeni quagmire and the weakening of its preferred rebel partners).

For those assembled in Astana, a principal focus is on the faltering, partially-observed ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey in late December after the regime recaptured the eastern half of Aleppo. In theory, the ceasefire covers all parts of the country controlled by non-jihadist opposition and pro-regime forces, while allowing continued attacks on the Islamic State and Fath al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which until recently maintained official links to al-Qaeda. In practice, the ceasefire has lowered violence in the north, but failed to prevent continued regime offensives against opposition-held areas in the countryside around Damascus in the south.

It is significant that the talks are in Russia’s geopolitical backyard, and the ball is now largely in Moscow’s court. Will it go further than it has done to date in pressing for a sustainable ceasefire capable of maintaining Turkish buy-in and adherence from non-jihadist rebels? If it chooses to do so, can it secure regime and Iranian cooperation? We don’t yet know the answers.

Are there signs that these talks will go any better than the many failed international efforts over the course of the war?

Russia, Iran and Turkey all have significant leverage on the ground in Syria, which could be used to dramatically reduce the level of violence.

Unfortunately, key dynamics that contributed to the ultimate failure of previous partial ceasefires remain in place. There are still big questions concerning the positions of Damascus and Tehran. The regime seems intent to stay on the attack, including through using Aleppo as a springboard to take additional territory in north-western Idlib province. Iran does not express its preferences so openly, but since Russia’s intervention began in September 2015, Tehran and its proxies have clearly shown they see advantage in staying on the offensive.

The regime and Iran-backed militias pursue local rather than national ceasefires; they achieve the former on favourable terms by applying relentless collective punishment to opposition-held areas, then exploit the resulting calm to shift forces toward escalation elsewhere. These deals are a key component of their military strategy, allowing them to expand their control while minimising strain on their limited manpower.

A national ceasefire, if implemented, would bar additional offensives against the non-jihadist opposition, and thus is not desirable from their perspective. Indeed, regime and Iranian reluctance to forego opportunities for military advance was key to the erosion of the first Cessation of Hostilities in early 2016. It also helps explain why the current ceasefire has failed to take hold around Damascus, where eliminating remaining pockets of resistance is a top regime and Iranian priority. The rebel stronghold of Idlib province also contains what appear to be key regime and Iranian objectives – notably the town of Jisr al-Shaghour and surrounding areas adjacent to regime-held Lattakia province, and the Shiite villages of Foua and Kefraya.

For the ceasefire to have any chance of extended success, more is required of the agreement’s co-sponsors. Turkey would need to do more to incentivise rebel implementation and penalise violators among all opposition groups that it supports, including Ahrar al-Sham. Russia would need to do more to curb attacks by its allies, using their dependence on its air support as leverage. Bringing Iran on board is crucial, as it has ample tools with which to thwart the implementation of any deal achieved at its expense. On that front, Iran’s role within and following the Astana talks will be interesting to watch.

Can there be an effective ceasefire without engaging elements of the jihadist opposition as well, if not the Islamic State, then possibly Fath al-Sham?

Indeed, Fath al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist faction linked to al-Qaeda and one of the strongest rebel forces, constitutes a huge obstacle to a sustained ceasefire. As in the previous Cessations of Hostilities, Fath al-Sham is excluded from this accord. In fact, in each ceasefire it has faced the prospect of becoming the primary victim, as any sustained drop in violence within such a framework is likely to highlight diverging interests between the jihadist group and the rest of the armed opposition, while allowing continued strikes against it in the meantime. Moreover, the exclusion of Fath al-Sham provides a gigantic loophole for the regime and its allies to continue attacks, using the presence of Fath al-Sham fighters, real or imagined, as a pretext. This occurred during the early 2016 Cessation of Hostilities, and is currently happening in Wadi al-Barada, north-west of Damascus, which the regime has continued to attack throughout the ceasefire. (The regime cites the alleged presence of Fath al-Sham in justifying its Wadi al-Barada offensive; the group’s presence is disputed, but it appears to compose at most a small minority of rebel fighters there).

The combined spoiling potential of the regime, Iran (including its militia proxies) and Fath al-Sham is immense, and mutually reinforcing. Offensives by the former two are used as justification for attacks by the latter, and vice versa. Over time, repeated perceived violations of the ceasefire make it easy for Fath al-Sham to convince fellow rebels to resume attacks. We saw this during the early 2016 Cessation of Hostilities, when northern factions participating in the agreement initially abstained from offensives launched by Fath al-Sham (then known as Jabhat al-Nusra), but later were persuaded to join them. Any erosion of non-jihadist rebel participation in the ceasefire heightens eagerness in Damascus and Tehran to regain the military initiative, and may increase pressure on Russia to provide the requisite air support.

A viable ceasefire will require a reconsideration of Fath al-Sham’s exclusion. In theory, if there is consensus on the priority of lowering violence in Syria, it would be better to attempt including Fath al-Sham in any ceasefire. If they accept, great; if they refuse, the task of isolating them from more pragmatic opposition elements might ease. In practice, however, there has been no such consensus, and achieving Russian, Iranian or even American buy-in for a deal including the group is unrealistic.

Working within those constraints, the best alternative would be to include within the ceasefire, for a defined period of time, areas in which Fath al-Sham maintains some presence but does not enjoy unilateral control. A sustained halt of pro-regime attacks in these areas would allow Turkey and its opposition allies time to employ the space, resources and political capital needed to address the Fath al-Sham problem in their midst.

What does the opposition stand to gain from attending these talks?

The opposition enters the negotiations from a weak position. The loss of eastern Aleppo had significant military and political ramifications, exacerbating divisions among and within its armed factions. This was most notable along a familiar faultline between hard-line Salafi-jihadists and more pragmatic non-jihadist rebels who define themselves as “revolutionaries”. That surge in tension threatens to split one of the most powerful rebel factions, Ahrar al-Sham, which has long straddled that faultline. It has also fuelled clashes between members of Fath al-Sham and the allied jihadist faction Jund al-Aqsa, on one hand, and Ahrar al-Sham and smaller “revolutionary” factions on the other. The most significant of this in-fighting began on 23 January, when Fath al-Sham launched a pre-coordinated offensive on Jaish al-Mujahideen, a non-jihadist faction based west of Aleppo (see below).

Ankara was able to convince most of the “revolutionary” factions to attend the Astana talks, with the notable exception of Ahrar al-Sham. They will want to strengthen and expand the ceasefire. Yet weakness on the battlefield limits the opposition delegation’s leverage in the talks, and divisions within opposition ranks raises the potential costs and risks of any perceived concession to which they may agree.

Negotiating under such difficult circumstances with an adversary like the Syrian regime, which avoided meaningful compromise even when it was much weaker, means there isn’t much the opposition delegates can accomplish by themselves in Astana. They seek to broaden implementation of the ceasefire, but for that they are dependent first upon Turkey’s ability to secure compromise from Russia, and second upon Russia’s capacity to win Iranian acceptance and regime implementation of that compromise. The uneven implementation of the current ceasefire indicates that while Turkish-Russian engagement is high, it is insufficient to shift how the regime and Iran address their military priorities around Damascus.

What is the impact on peace prospects of Turkey’s big about-turn in Syria?

A notable factor distinguishing this ceasefire from previous “Cessations of Hostilities” is the degree of direct Turkish involvement. For now at least, Turkey has replaced the U.S. as Russia’s primary interlocutor in negotiating such arrangements. This is significant, as Turkey enjoys more direct leverage over, and trust among, the opposition’s non-jihadist armed factions that are party to these agreements.

Turkey is the most important ally of the opposition, and its shift toward significant coordination with Russia has become a major bone of contention in intra-opposition wrangling. Ankara pushed its rebel partners to agree to a ceasefire and to attend the Astana talks mostly for reasons of its own: it is preoccupied with its trans-border struggle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian affiliate, cognisant of the opposition’s weakening military hand, and keen to build on improved relations with Moscow. Most of the factions complied, despite intense counter-pressure from Fath al-Sham.

Where does Turkey’s change of heart leave the Syrian opposition?

The bottom line is that the opposition’s “revolutionary” factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, are at a strategic crossroads.

Do they stick together alongside Turkey, which has de-emphasised – though not entirely dropped – the goal of replacing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but which can help the opposition preserve the territory it still holds via a combination of continued military support and, potentially, negotiated arrangements with Russia? This path constrains the non-jihadist opposition’s offensive options, at least in the short run, and further increases tensions with Fath al-Sham. But it offers them the best opportunity to maintain territory and political relevance.

Alternatively, the non-jihadist opposition could reject the diplomatic tack Turkey is urging, and move closer to Fath al-Sham. This could spare them the embarrassment of bitter compromise, and lower the risks of an intra-rebel war. But it might also cost them their state support, and would almost certainly subject them to increased military pressure. With no ceasefire on the table, Russia would likely throw its weight behind expanded and intensified military offensives. As the fate of eastern Aleppo made clear, that would entail immense bloodshed and destruction in opposition areas, resulting ultimately in further loss of territory.

The opposition’s “revolutionaries” should thus be clear: continuing to tie their fates to that of Fath al-Sham will transform their role in the conflict. It will reduce the scope of territory they control and push their rebellion, by choice or default, into a strategy of long-term asymmetric insurgency. That would suit Fath al-Sham’s leadership and other Salafi-jihadists just fine – the tactics required play to their comparative advantages, and they appear to prefer continued war in pursuit of ideological objectives over compromise aimed at preserving what remains of the rebels’ territorial gains and protecting the social fabric of local communities. The radicals’ profit, however, would be the “revolutionary” factions’ loss. More dependent on external state support and less proficient in insurgent tactics than their jihadist counterparts, they would lose relative weight within the rebellion alongside their continued territorial losses, and thus forfeit political relevance.

Could you tell us more about the current fighting betwen Fath al-Sham and other rebels?

Fath al-Sham’s attack on Jaish al-Mujahideen west of Aleppo was no surprise.

The decision by several “revolutionary” factions (including Jaish al-Mujahideen) to attend Astana talks further heightened tensions between them and Fath al-Sham. Another factor exacerbating that rift is the recent expansion and escalation of U.S. strikes targeting Fath al-Sham leadership and facilities. The U.S. has played a role in supporting Jaish al-Mujahideen and other “revolutionary” factions over the last three years, so the fact that U.S. drones are now killing Fath al-Sham leaders both fuels jihadist suspicion toward those factions and provides a pretext to attack them.
The Fath al-Sham offensive has sparked broad anger within the rest of the armed opposition, and many are expressing solidarity with Jaish al-Mujahideen. But that alone won’t add up to much, given Fath al-Sham’s skill in divide-and-conquer tactics and knack for taking the initiative. If the “revolutionary” factions do not coordinate better to deter and defend against such attacks, their role in northern Syria will erode further still.

How comfortable can the Damascus regime and its allies be as the opposition’s many problems multiply?

The regime and its allies are in a much better position than the opposition at the moment, indeed more comfortable in some respects than they have been since 2012. Yet even with their military momentum at its height, an obvious Achilles’ heel remains: the shortage of capable, reliable Syrian fighters.

The juxtaposition in December of the regime’s Aleppo victory and its rapid loss of Palmyra to the Islamic State are instructive: while a combination of brutal collective punishment, Russian air support, and Iran-backed foreign militiamen can result in regime gains even in opposition strongholds, the regime lacks sufficient resources to effectively protect lower-priority territory in the meantime. The Syrian security forces have a serious manpower problem, and efforts to gradually expand conscription over the course of the conflict have failed to solve it.

This presents a major challenge to Moscow and Tehran, which bear the burden of compensating for the regime’s weaknesses. Even with all their help, the regime lacks the means to defeat its armed opponents outright. What it can do, if Iran and Russia provide the requisite men and firepower, is continue to reduce the scope of territory controlled by the opposition. If Damascus prioritises areas held by non-jihadist factions, as it has often done before, this will further reduce their collective political weight. In the process, however, the regime and its allies will be expanding the zone of territory to which they must dedicate precious fighters to control, leaving themselves vulnerable to a strategy of asymmetric insurgency aimed at gradually grinding away at their will and capacity.

The pro-regime camp’s depopulation tactics employed against opposition-held areas can mitigate this threat to some extent, but probably not enough to render the costs and risks easily sustainable, given their own manpower constraints, Syria’s demographics, and the strength of the remaining insurgency.

This vulnerability to a long-term, potentially dangerous insurgency does not appear to factor deeply in regime or Iranian decision-making. Yet they are unable to gain significant territory in northern rebel strongholds without robust Russian support. For its part, Moscow has often appeared more concerned than its allies of the risk of regime overstretch and more willing to explore diplomatic paths with the U.S. and, most recently, Turkey.

If Russia can press for a sustainable ceasefire that is supported by Turkey, accepted by Iran, and adhered to by the regime and non-jihadist rebels, the potential result would be an effective freezing of the conflict. This would preserve remaining chunks of territory dominated by “revolutionary” rebels, but meanwhile set the stage for expanded confrontation with Fath al-Sham and fellow Salafi-jihadists. It would also cement the regime’s position of strength and minimise its risk of overstretch.

It remains to be seen how these Astana talks will feed into the UN-backed Geneva process, with the next round of meetings due to begin on 8 February. But we remain a long way from addressing the underlying issues, let alone reaching a broader political settlement to end the conflict.

Noah Bonsey is Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.

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