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1 March 2016

No End of Violence In Sight

Three scenarios for the future development of the Syrian war.

After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, is there finally light at the end of the tunnel? A new ceasefire deal signed last week by the United States and Russia offers some signs of hope. The terms of the deal require the Americans and Russians to bring their respective proxies into line, and the two sides also agreed to establish a hotline, and to tightly monitor the implementation of the deal on the ground.

As with any truce in a country as volatile as Syria though, uncertainty reigns, and it’s not clear what will happen next. There are three possible scenarios.

The first scenario is that the truce will rapidly unravel. Recent precedent supports this possibility, as the day after the previous ceasefire the Russians continued bombing the Free Syrian Army (FSA), despite the fact that the FSA was covered by the truce. 

Moreover, the current ceasefire explicitly exempts the terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra - al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate - from the truce, offering Russia and the Assad regime a loophole to continue bombing FSA units. Al-Nusra forces are widely scattered amongst other non-terrorist forces in both the north and south of Syria, providing the regime a ready-made excuse to continue targeting all opposition groups. 

Another reason to question the ceasefire's staying power is emerging evidence of a split between Russia's objectives and Assad's. Assad recently vowed to reconquer all of Syria, and asserted that the political and military tracks were separate. In addition, while the Syrian government publicly accepted the truce, it reserved for itself the right to continue fighting terrorists. Indeed, Assad's recent statement  that "in Syria anyone who holds a machine gun is a terrorist" represents a clear indication that he will only abandon the fight very reluctantly.

In many ways, Russia is caught in a trap of its own making, since the very success of its air campaign also reduces Assad’s willingness to negotiate. After all, what motivates Assad to cut a deal just when Russian air support turned the tide in his favor? There is only one exit from this trap for Russia – but it won’t be easy. To bring Assad along, Putin would need to bluntly tell Assad that Russia will continue the current intensity of its bombing campaign forever, and tell Assad he needs to cut a deal now.

The second scenario is more hopeful. Although there is much reason for pessimism regarding the ceasefire, a small cause for hope is that Russia appears somewhat more committed to the current truce. For starters, immediately after Assad expressed his desire for complete victory, the Russians publicly slapped him down. In a recent interview, Russia's representative to the United Nations warned  Assad to "follow Russia's leadership," adding that "Russia has invested very seriously in this crisis, politically, diplomatically and now also militarily. Therefore we would like Assad also to respond to this."

While Moscow's trustworthiness as a negotiating partner is questionable, it is also possible to see why Putin might consider scaling down Russia's direct involvement in Syria's civil war. For one thing, last December, United States Secretary of State John Kerry capitulated to Russian demands that Assad's immediate departure was no longer required to end the war. Whereas the Obama administration's previous rallying cry was that "Assad must go," after meeting Putin in Moscow Kerry stated that "the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change," adding that focus was on ending the violence, "not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad." This about face not only reflects Washington's increased concern with fighting ISIS, but also represents Washington's increased acceptance of Moscow's view that Assad's abrupt departure without a clear successor in place would only further destabilize Syria.

Another reason for optimism regarding Russian intentions is that Russia's bombing campaign has clearly turned the tide of the war in Assad's favor, and it makes sense for Putin to turn his military success into lasting geopolitical achievements. Stephen Blank, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council argues that Putin possesses three primary goals in Syria: to establish permanent Russian military bases which Putin can use to project Russian power throughout the Middle East; to influence - if not outright control - Syrian politics; and to control any energy flows to or from Syria. With the Assad regime's position stabilized, four Russian military bases up and running, and Assad's continued survival dependent on Russian goodwill, now is the perfect time for Putin to claim victory in Syria and cash in his chips.

To be clear, none of this means the ceasefire will hold, but given the investments by both Washington and Moscow, an ideal outcome is unlikely, but not implausible.

The third scenario – the most worrisome of the three - is that Syria’s civil war expands to a direct clash between Russia and Turkey. Turkey fears that the main Kurdish force in Syria, the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, is close to establishing an autonomous state in northern Syria running along the length of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey’s fears are not without merit. As the map from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) demonstrates, the Kurds control almost the entire Turkish-Syrian border with the exception of the 100 kms stretch in grey. Ankara already threatens military action against the Kurds if YPG units cross Turkey’s redline “West of the Euphrates,”, and Turkey just launched artillery strikes against YPG positions. Given Turkey’s neuralgic response to the possibility the YPG could control its southern border, Ankara may well decide to send ground troops into northern Syria to attack the YPG.

A Turkish invasion may well be exactly what Putin wants. According to one Turkish analyst, Putin is not prepared to put Turkey’s November shoot down of a Russian jet in the past, and consequently “Russia is trying to draw Turkey into a fight to avenge” this. Indeed, Putin has already begun to play the Kurdish card against Turkey by providing air support for YPG units operating across the Turkey’s Euphrates “redline,” and Russian soldiers reportedly operate as forward air controllers in the field alongside the YPG. 

A direct Russian-Turkish clash – while unlikely - is fraught with dangerous outcomes. As this ISW map shows, Russian S400 surface-to-air missiles now control the skies of over much of Syria into southern Turkey.

What happens if Turkey tries to support a ground invasion with its air force, and the Russians shoot down one or more Turkish planes? Even if Turkey keeps its jets out of Syrian air space, what if Russian ground forces retaliate against a Turkish ground invasion by directly attacking Turkish troops? It’s difficult to see how either of these scenarios end well.

While Turkey would undoubtedly hope for NATO support in either case, if Russian-Turkish clashes occur within Syrian borders, such support is unlikely to be forthcoming. The Obama administration evinces no great wish for a clash with Russia arising from the Syrian crisis, and it’s far from clear Washington would rush to Ankara’s aid, even in the event Russian S400s down a Turkish jet over Turkish airspace itself. In the latter scenario, Russia will have humiliated Turkey, asserted Russian power in the Middle East and – if the United States does not rush to Turkey’s support – weakened the NATO alliance all in one stroke. Therefore, given the risks for Ankara, most analysts believe a Turkish invasion of Syria is unlikely - but when it comes to the Middle East nothing is certain.   

Given the number of things that could blow-up Syria’s latest ceasefire, all parties are rightfully skeptical that the violence will soon end.

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