The collapse of Syria’s ceasefire agreement between Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raises many questions: How will things develop in the next few months?, what will be President Putin’s next step?, how will the failure of the attempt to divide the Syrian opposition play out in the area of Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS) relations with the rest of the opposition groups?, and to which extent the collapse of the ceasefire may impact the ability of Assad allies to mobilize enough ground forces to both defend their previous gains and potentially expand those gains?
The post-ceasefire week witnessed some wild Russian-Syrian air raids on opposition areas that left scores of civilians dead. This tailed the raid on the humanitarian UN aid convoy by Assad and Russian planes. Russians are openly talking now about targeting other opposition groups like Ahrar Al Sham or Jaish Al Islam.
Then came the arrival of an additional number of Russian “volunteers”, mostly former military personnel, to Syria to assist the Syrian army. It was said the Russia’s Orthodox Church provided the budget to pay the volunteers. The number of those Russian “contractors” active currently in Syria is estimated at 5000 men.
This reflects exactly where the Russian government is worried the most: the situation on the ground. Assad forces and their Shia allies have a poor record in keeping territories they captured, let alone advancing to gain more territories. The ground fight will be the focus of the two sides in the few coming months, and there is little that the Russian army can do in this field, apart from sending ground troops to Syria, which is highly unlikely.
It is fair, therefore, to say that President Putin and Russia’s generals expect the on-the-ground fight to flare. And in this area specifically lies Assad’s weakest point. It is important to see that any contradictions between the Syrian army in the one hand and the other militias and allied local criminal gangs will be a secondary concern to Russia or Assad at present.
The impact of intensive Russian air raids was important so far but it did not reach the point of turning the conflict around. It is not likely now that an intensification of the air raids alone will bring a decisive shift in the course of the conflict. Ground forces will, however. And Assad does not have the advantage in this area. Therefore, it may be prudent to expect yet another turn in the conflict in a matter of six months to be added to the many ups and downs of the Syrian crisis.
The US is ought to use this period to develop its leverage on the ground and devise a course of the next phase of its engagement in Syria. There are key elements already available like some relatively moderate opposition forces, Turkey and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates.
The demise of ISIL will end the stigmatic strategy of “ISIL First” and put the US face to face with what to do in the post-ISIL war zone.
In this context, it may be necessary to have a critical reading of the approach used so far to isolate the JSF (formerly Nusra Front) from the rest of the opposition. Our critical take of Secretary Kerry’s concept in this regard as apparent in his deal with Minister Lavrov is that isolating a group from the rest cannot be achieved successfully if both face a joint enemy and without an isolating theme related to their essence.
By an isolating theme we mean in this particular case a certain perspective for a solution to the conflict. The way for this theme to be related to the essence of the various groups — to be separated from the JSF — is that obvious if the theme or the “tool” used involves a vision related to the future Syria.
An example to further explain this point is that if a specific road map and final objective when this seems achievable –which is the theme here — this will immediately result in sorting out the opposition groups around this particular separating mechanism or theme. Some groups will side with an inclusive solution that accepts a diversified democratic Syria while others will stick to their zero-sum end games.
Furthermore, it is wrong now as it was wrong always to perceive the JSF as a homogeneous entity comparable, for example, to a wood log. This organization, as any other, has many sub-groups and trends. Therefore, even the objective of isolating JSF from the rest is wrong if it is taken in form as Secretary Kerry did. The separation and targeting should be based on substance as well, and it should be perceived by all the groups as a realizable political objective to be demanded to say where they stand on it. If it is not seen as serious, no one will split according to what is thought to be a mirage or a trap. Such a plan for the future of Syria may very well cause a split within the JSF with the rejectionist on one side and those who accept this political plan on the other. Furthermore, it will help define the positions of all other groups. Otherwise, sorting out who to bomb and who to spare will be based on arbitrary standards. It is either you separate people on bases of who is bearded and who is not, or to sort them out based on the relevant content of their position on your final objective. Briefly, splitting the opposition should not be based on superficial formal standards or labels. Rather, it should be based on their respective position on the ultimate objective when time is ripe to move towards it. This does not mean that that the JFS should be assisted. It simply means that sorting out the opposition in vacuum is too abstract to be realizable.
For example, assuming that a plan for a pluralist Syria is agreed upon between the all relevant parties, including, of course, the majority of Syrian opposition, and assuming that Assad will not be present in the picture according to such a plan,, then JSF members have to make up their minds and select the side that fits each member’s belief. This is how isolating the JFS will turn into isolating the rejectionists in general, regardless of their organization or the color of their flag.
This content-based concept should replace the abstract and formal approach used in Secretary Kerry’s deals with minister.
As we expect that Assad forces will run out of steam within the next few months (they were faltering already), it is important not only to develop on-the-ground leverage, but also to explore the framework of a potential solution that preserves law and order in Syria and enables it to start its long reconstruction trip.
One of the most important elements that should be incorporated in any concept of a framework is that it has to be multilateral. Turkey, the Arab countries, Iran and Russia should come to formulate a framework based on the new balance of force on the ground-that is a balance of force where Assad is retreating.
The collapse of Kerry-Lavrov deal was not only written on the wall from the start, it was also deserved. It was a bad piece of diplomacy. A well thought of plan has to be considered without delay. It goes through pushing for developing leverages, pushing for a calculated shift in the balance of force without detractions like whom to isolate, other than ISIL, and without supporting any radical group. For everything there is a season. And the season of sorting out the opposition will certainly come when a valid and serious political solution is on the table.
One final word: Syria’s territorial integrity has to be preserved all the time. We detected a wave of Russian propaganda “defending” Syria’s unity. Certainly President Putin wants a unified Syria but under Assad’s iron fist. Assad himself vows day and night to defend Syria’s unity and free every inch of it of terrorism, which in this case everyone refuses his blood thirsty dictatorship.
But the motto of the unity of Syria is indeed a deceptive trap as well if taken in abstract. For it is essential to define first what kind of a unified Syria are we looking for, is it a unified Syria under the iron fist of Assad and his Iranian militias? Or is it a unified Syria under a democratic and representative government? It is actually the Russians who stand on the way to a democratically unified Syria by supporting Assad regime in his drive to put all of Syria under his iron fist. So, it might be proper to ask Russia’s agents to really support a unified Syria through asking Putin to change his policy and to give up on Assad and move on to a plan for the post-Assad Syria.