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19 January 2017

Ceasefire for the sake of war

What does the ceasefire in Syria mean and what consequences could arise from it?

On December 30, 2016, shortly after the bloody assault on eastern Aleppo, a nationwide ceasefire was established between the Assadites and the opposition. Russia and Turkey are guarantors of the truce. Conflict resolution talks due to be held in late January 2017 in Astana were announced on the same day. Russia, Turkey and Iran will all be seated at the negotiation table and Russia has announced that it will reduce the number of its troops stationed in Syria against this backdrop.

Moscow’s initiative is seen by many as a major diplomatic victory: the Kremlin strikes a deal with key players “on the ground” including one of the NATO members while the transfer of power is taking place in the United States. If we take a closer look at the process, we can see that Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in place until 2011, cannot be restored and that no common ground exists for nationwide reconciliation. Recurrent revisitations to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement only serve to underline the fact that there is no, nor has there ever been, any intelligible logic underlying Syria’s post-war political system.

Moreover, despite Moscow’s tough stance, Russia has no means by which it can become a fully-fledged sponsor of the post-war reconstruction of the country. Therefore, both the ceasefire and the negotiations, scheduled to be held in Astana, will bring little more than the resolution of tactical problems. What we are witnessing is rather a military respite accompanied by attempts to secure a strong bargaining position undertaken by all parties, Russia included, in the wake of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.

Post-Aleppo: the meaning of “ceasefire”

The victory of Assad’s troops, brokered by Russia, in the hard-fought battle for Aleppo became a turning point in the Syrian war, made use of by propagandists to the greatest extent. This victory gave a new lease of life to Moscow and Damascus. We should, nevertheless, carefully consider its political consequences.

Assad loyalists took hold of a ruined city whose population had shrunk manifold and whose industry is shattered. Moreover, a battalion of Russian military police, staffed by Chechens and charged with maintaining order in the city, was sent to Aleppo which suggests that Assad’s forces lack the potential to do so independently. The potential of Russian aviation and special operation forces has also proven to be limited. Having rendered eastern Aleppo something akin to Grozny in the days of the Chechen wars, Moscow failed to help its Damascan friend fend off ISIS in Palmyra which was liberated last spring. It would have been immeasurably more difficult for Assadites to capture Aleppo without the tacit consent of Turkey (secured thanks to great effort spent by Moscow).

Consequently, not only were rebels who lost the battle of Aleppo interested in the fragile truce as of December 30, 2016, but so were Assad troops along with Russia. Moscow was in little doubt that respite was required in order to rotate aircraft in need of maintenance and it saw this as a good excuse for bringing an end to the campaigns of the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser and the Pyotr Veliky nuclear-powered battle cruiser patrolling off the shores of Syria. The ceasefire also means that the discussion about Russia’s strategy for aerial warfare will be stricken off the international agenda, at least for the time being.

Turkey’s position is somewhat different as it has no intention of liberating the besieged city of Al-Bab in the Aleppo province occupied by ISIS militants. Any further advancement against ISIS positions following Al-Bab, in any case, should only be carried out in connection with the necessity to resolve the issue of Assad and Assad loyalists who control the stretch of road leading to Al-Raqqah. An agreement with Russia is crucial in so far as an “accidental” defeat of the coalition’s troops with the use of air strikes and missiles would be catastrophic. At the same time, Ankara is clearly more focused on settling the Kurdish issue and setting the record straight with the United States after Trump assumes office.

Given such a situation, agreements reached with Moscow on ceasefire guarantees as well as the announcement of talks in Astana with the participation of Iran, serve to strengthen Turkey’s diplomatic ties, including relations with coalition allies. These agreements also cement Ankara’s special role in the Syrian issue which ensures Turkey’s participation as a key party in the post-war settlement, irrespective of whether it has urged Assad to take a hike or if it is prepared to alter its stance.

Damascus needed the truce in order to regroup its modest number of troops and subsequently attack the pockets of opposition forces in controlled territories. Villages in the Wadi Barada valley to the west of Damascus, wherefrom the capital’s water flows, are to be the first in line.

All of this means that the war of Assad and his entourage against the opposition will continue, especially if the international coalition, headed by the US, cuts off material and political support for the anti-Assad opposition following Trump’s inauguration.

Economic tenets of the ever-lasting war

It is almost certainly true that the probability of negotiations in Astana being successful is extremely low. And this is not only because, as many fear, Assad is incapable of honoring the truce, nor because Turkey and Iran are regional rivals.

The major stumbling block exists in the fact that, for Assad, any permanent and feasible agreement with the opposition will be considered tantamount to defeat. In other words, a Sykes-Picot 2.0 will certainly be of little appeal to him. Assad can maintain power (thanks to handouts from Moscow and Tehran) only under conditions of incessant warfare. However, he has no resources with which to reconstruct the country or rebuild a sustainable mode of power, even in the territories formally subjected to him, nor do his patrons have such resources at their disposal.

According to some estimates, Syria needs $180 bn in investment merely to return its GDP to a level on a par with pre-war GDP. It is also noteworthy that before the war (in 2010), the main target countries for Syrian commodity exports were Iraq (21.4%), Germany (11.5%) and Italy (9.3%). More than a third of revenue (over $4bn) came from oil and petroleum products. The major importers of goods into Syria were China (9.5%), Ukraine (8.9%) and Russia (8.6%). However, Syria had a negative foreign-trade balance even back then.

By 2014, exports (from all the territories including those not controlled by Damascus) had plummeted to one-fourteenth of pre-war levels (to $824m) amidst the warfare. Exports of crude and petroleum products amounted to a mere $220m i.e. one-twentieth of 2010 figures. At the same time, imports slumped only to a third (to $6.11bn). Foreign trade partners changed, too; the major importers of Syrian commodities were Jordan (18%), Lebanon (15%), Egypt (14%) and Turkey (13%) while imports mainly came from Turkey (24%), China (16%), South Korea (6.9%) and Egypt (5.7%).

Hence, Syria’s options are extremely limited when it comes to a long-term strategy for reinstalling its international trade relations. Which markets will allow its recovery? Can the loyalty of the current regional leaders be bought? Given this situation, any peace process under the auspices of Moscow aimed at preserving Assad and his entourage’s power will inevitably cast doubt over their ability to attract international donors and investors which will no doubt make clearing the debris left in the wake of a destructive war impossible. This also means that the incumbent government of Damascus is unable to offer up acceptable economic and consequently, political rules of the game. The Kalashnikov assault-rifle will be the main means of securing wealth and power for many years to come should no such rules be introduced.

Fighting Islamic state

Moscow and Damascus can go on playing their game. Their greatest hopes are pinned on Trump, and the new approach the president-elect has outlined with respect to relations with Russia. This approach involves seeking a compromise. In this context, Russia and Assad can take advantage of the truce and focus their efforts (albeit with somewhat limited force) on the war against ISIS should augmentation of the number of the Russian boots on the ground not be implemented. For example, they may opt to initiate a new offensive on Palmyra and beyond in a south-easterly direction – in sparsely populated areas along the route to Deir ez-Zor - blocked by ISIS. Russia would not lose face for sidestepping the offensive on Al-Raqqah, which would be better left to Turkey and the Kurds who are at loggerheads, especially as Moscow and Damascus have little to gain from joining this squabble.

Obviously, we are dealing with a very abstract scenario here as a number of variable factors are at play. For example, it could be that the international coalition is in no hurry to defeat ISIS. However, the options available to Assadites and their allies in Moscow (and Tehran) are somewhat limited in the aftermath of Aleppo and given the prospects of massacres in the villages of the Wadi Barada area; they either have to engage the opposition in a fresh battle of the war on terror in the vicinity of Idlib or switch their attention to ISIS while maintaining the illusion that they are determined to reach a solution through dialogue with the opposition and prevent it from amassing forces with the use of missile attacks. There is currently no escaping the vicious cycle of perennial warfare.

A year and a half into the military campaign, the Kremlin has a bee in its bonnet about maintaining Assad’s personal power as well as that of his entourage. Surely, any hopes that the Kremlin may have harbored that the international community would rubber-stamp Russia’s annexation of Crimea in exchange for services rendered in Syria have diminished entirely. Moscow can count on political dividends only in the case that Trump and the entire international coalition recognize Assad as the sole legitimate ruler. However, the dictator of Damascus will “milk” Russia with ever-increasing frequency as every new victory is achieved thanks to the efforts of Moscow. Moreover, every major failure points to the necessity for Russia to raise the political-and-military stakes it wagers on Assad. 

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