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Is It Really Peace in Syria?

The ceasefire deal in Syria, which presumably will be followed by peace talks between Assad and his opponents in Kazakhstan, was engineered and negotiated between Presidents Raccep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, without the direct participation of the opposition, the Arabs, the Iranians, and the US.

However, Erdogan and Putin were not only representing themselves. They were also reflecting the demands of the relevant parties, be they the Arabs, the Iranians, the opposition, or Assad. Each side has its own demands and it has been certainly difficult to reconcile all different views, many of which were contradictory.

Of course, the deal is not perfect. No deal in similar contexts would be perfect. And then again, “perfect” means different things to different sides in this bloody war. But at least we have a deal. And anything is definitely better than seeing people getting killed every day for a cause that lost its soul long time ago. Yet, there is one central question now: Will this deal hold? Will it lead to a lasting peace?

Though some elements of the deal remain secret, let us try to put our hands on where the potential gaps in this endeavor are and how those gaps may impact any attempt to answer this central question.

Obviously, the realization of the deal as it was envisioned will be defined by how the various parties concerned and how they will react to it. Only Russia and Turkey signed the agreement. But what about the opposition, the Arabs, the Iranians and Assad?

The importance of the positions of those four players in the Syrian crisis is not equal. Assad, for one example, enjoys a smaller space as he is dependent on the Iranians and the Russians. Also, the Arabs do not totally “control” each and every opposition group. According to the deal, Moscow plays the guarantor of the Assad’s adherence and Turkey guarantees that the opposition will respect the deal.

In our view, and though this is not evident yet, the major player is the opposition. The positions of the Iranians and the Arabs are decisive, but the regional parties will ultimately react to events on the ground. And due to the volatility of the situation on the ground, any action by the opposition can trigger a chain of reactions that may very well determine what the Arabs and the Iranians do. The opposite is also likely due to the simple fact that neither Iran-Assad nor some opposition groups think that the Turkish-Russian deal is favorable to their objectives. Iran and Assad may very well violate the ceasefire to provoke the opposition to react, hence to bring the deal to an end. The most critical phase of the deal is therefore the first several weeks of its life.

For this reason, the tough nut in the potential peace equation is the armed opposition. So far, the deal was smartly phrased to avoid demanding a signature from all relevant opposition groups. This step gave the opposition groups some space and avoided the internal debate which usually turns to a platform for the most radical elements.

But this helpful ambiguity is only effective for a limited period. Sooner than later, the opposition groups must announce, in words and deeds, and not only by passively silencing their guns, where they stand. So far, the Turkish-Russian agreement caused a degree of disagreement within the major opposition organizations. The heated debate inside each group and between the various major organizations is currently very active. But as they are not required to sign any draft, the disagreement remains contained for the time being.

However, this period of ambiguity is important in defining the ultimate position of each group. The important factor here is that the endgame is not clear. As this may be helpful in the first few weeks, it threatens the whole endeavor later. The right thing to do here is to hold the blueprints of the endgame until the point when it becomes clear that most of the armed opposition is about to turn against the deal. However, if this approach is chosen, all regional powers should be enlisted to help gain time. The justification is that the talks in Kazakhstan will define the endgame. Time helps to cool down the flared sentiments and it creates new realities.

The problems on the opposition side were obvious in the reaction of the Nusra Front (Jabhat Fatah Al Sham-JFS) which officially refused the deal but respected it at the same time. Intensive contacts between the Arabs and the Turks, the Russians and the Arabs, the Turks and the opposition as between regional capitals paved the road to the Putin-Erdogan deal and provided it with its limited chance to work.

Thinking in terms of organizational labels is not advised at this moment. In general terms, the opposition will ultimately be split into two major camps: one that supports the deal and another that vows to fight on. The weight of the Arabs and the Turks will play a role in defining the size of the two sides. Ultimately, the balance between those two camps will determine if we will have a period of quiet in Syria. Even in the case of Nusra, a split is to be expected, if prospects of a permanent peace are becoming serious based on a reasonable endgame.

The general split is a natural result as the polarization between peace and war advances into this new grounds of the Turkish-Russian deal and hence becomes more acute. This split will be seen in the general body of the opposition and not only in Nusra.

However, Nusra is certainly not comfortable with the deal. Civilians in areas where the group is widely present are starting to look at it as a burden as long as it is excluded from Russia’s and Assad’s raids. Those civilians do admit that Nusra defended them in many occasions and wish it can cut its ties to Qaeda in order to be excluded from the target list of the air raids and save them and their families further pain. This factor will play a larger role than many people think. Therefore, humanitarian aid should be delivered without delay, particularly to the regions where Nusra is active. The hosting population must feel, in every direct manner, the difference between war and peace.

Nusra is under intense pressure to seriously distance itself from Al Qaeda or disband altogether and join other groups. Any decision in that direction will be decided by the course of events and either the deal will hold or not.  

But what will the portion of the opposition that accepts peace do in the future? According to the Turkish-Russian plan we will see specific areas in Syria assigned to the opposition groups to run administratively with a thin and only formal cover from the central government. In other words, the areas of the opposition will be part of a “unified” Syria. The new local administrations made of opposition elements will run their regions at the conditions of keeping it free from terrorists, retaining order, resuming civil services and embarking on a reconstruction plan.

This assumes that opposition groups which really accept the deal will be helped to step back to the spot where we see groups playing a political and administrative functions at a minimum or working as an ally in fighting the rest of the opposition (those who refuse to end their fight) at a maximum. The move from the current situation to this objective will be bumpy and long.

As we said above, the first phase of the current deal will be decisive indeed. In the case of Iran, the deal is based on the assumption that all foreign forces (including Hezbollah) will pull out their fighters from Syria. It took quite a bit of persuasion to get Tehran to absorb this demand which was conveyed by Moscow in clear terms. It is not likely, however, that this demand could be fulfilled in the first couple of years of any permeant status based on the deal. Getting the Iranians to commit verbally to making a certain step is something, and getting them to practically make this step is a totally different thing.

This particular point suddenly increased the “price” of Assad in the diplomatic ring. The Iranians are worried that the Russians alone will assume the role of the new masters of Syria. This implies that Tehran will come out with less than it hoped for from the long and painful story of the Syrian tragedy.

But the Kremlin does not offer free lunches neither. As it is paying most of the bills, it puts its hand on most of the dishes. The prospects of a Trump-Putin deal regarding Syria worries Tehran to the point where it may get Tehran to rush some risky adventures in Syria.

One of those adventures is building a local Syrian Hezbollah. If the Turkish-Russian deal requires that “foreigners” leave, a local Syrian militia run by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a la Lebanon’s Hezbollah can provide a way out.

The Iranians will require Assad to show some gratitude for what they have done to preserve his chair and demand from him to allow this back-door armed presence to be built using the Syrian elements trained by the Iranians to fight the opposition.

But Iran cannot run the show in Syria if the Russians pulled out. Therefore, Tehran is compelled to get along verbally with the Erdogan-Putin deal while thinking of ways to preserve its gains. It is possible, however, that Tehran and Moscow go through a period of silent tension due to conflicting strategies and as a result of the new phase in which Russia seems to be the main force that shape the direction of events.

The most likely scenario is that Iran interferes more assertively to spoil the deal by provoking the opposition. If Iran and Assad believes that the Turkish-Russian deal is not favorable to their strategic plans (and they do believe it is indeed not favorable), they will pull some tricks to push the deal to collapse. Some forces in the opposition will be more than happy to react to Iran-Assad ambushes on the deal and get back to fighting.  

The general lines of the deal, particularly the administrative regions where opposition groups take responsibility were discussed in MEB in September 2015 (How to Reach a Transitional Truce in Syria). There is a chance that the deal will work. It started right and both Ankara and Moscow seem aware of the headwinds that may face their agreement. The crucial elements that will decide the fate of this deal is, first of all, time. If it holds for few weeks, or better few months, and if the civilian in opposition areas feel that there is a real improvement in their daily lives, chances of the agreement holding will increase. Second, it is necessary to announce a conditioned endgame-that is to say if A and B are done (fighting ISIL and keeping opposition areas free of terrorists), Y and Z will be delivered-that is to say that Assad will go and a new Syria will be built on respecting all Syrians without exclusion.

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