December 19, 2016
The tragedy of Aleppo which has become the symbol of the devastation and the suffering caused by the Syrian conflict appears to have entered a new phase. The agreement reached between Russia and Turkey for the evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from Aleppo was off to a rocky start characterized by confusion and setbacks. Understandably, this was not going to be smooth process. Because, regime forces regard all rebel fighters as terrorists regardless of their group affiliation and would be extremely reluctant to let them go with their arms to resume fighting elsewhere. If a substantial number of civilians caught in the crossfire can be evacuated in the coming days this would in itself be a major accomplishment.
On December 8, 2016 Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov met in Hamburg on the margins of an OSCE ministerial meeting. Yet, they were even unable to hold a joint news conference as they had done in the past. Later, in remarks to the press Secretary Kerry said:
“… provided we are able to stabilize the situation in Aleppo, it is essential that we move forward at the earliest possible moment with a Syrian-led political process aimed at ending the war and transitioning to a new and more representative government. And without that meaningful transition of power in which the voices of the Syrian people are heard, the opposition will continue to fight, terrorists will continue to be drawn to the country, and millions of Syrians will continue to be forced to flee their homes…”
The record of attempts to launch Syria’s political transition does not leave much room for optimism. President Assad says that he is determined to retake every inch of territory remaining under rebel control and the opposition which has never succeeded in forming a truly united front would not rush to the negotiating table under duress. Actually, this is what Secretary Kerry said in Brussels on December 6, two days before meeting Minister Lavrov in Germany:
“…. that fight has been going on now for five years plus. When we assembled in Vienna a couple of years ago to begin the process of trying to create a political direction for trying to resolve the war, we brought everybody to the table, including Russia and Iran. And we sought a ceasefire. And let me make it clear that at that point in time Russia and Iran both supported a ceasefire when we were in Vienna. But the opposition would not buy into a ceasefire; they didn’t want to have a ceasefire. And there was a refusal to embrace the ceasefire, despite many of us saying that’s the best way to get to the table and have a negotiation in order to resolve this politically. But people chose to fight. And from that day until today, there’s been a loss of territory and a loss of life way beyond what any of us wanted to see unfold…”
The Syrian conflict always had its own extremely complicated internal and external dynamics. Nonetheless, America’s and Russia’s top diplomats were able to continue their dialogue on Syria. Now, Washington is only a month away from Inauguration Day and the controversy regarding Moscow’s alleged intervention in the American presidential election has added to tensions between the two powers. Furthermore, the EU has extended sanctions against Russia for another six months no doubt in close consultation with the US.
As for President Assad’s regional adversaries, they do not have the capacity to change the current balance of forces. Ankara is faced with a myriad of internal and external problems; Riyadh is bogged down in Yemen and Doha, like Ankara, seems to have conflicting interests.
On November 26, 2016 Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told Reuters: “This support is going to continue, we are not going to stop it. It doesn’t mean that if Aleppo falls we will give up on the demands of the Syrian people… Even if the regime captures it (Aleppo), I am sure they will have the ability to capture it back from the regime …” (1)
And, on December 13, 2016 the Kremlin published the a readout of President Putin’s telephone conversation with the Emir of Qatar:
“At the initiative of Qatar, Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar.
“During the conversation, President Putin and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani discussed bilateral relations. Specifically, they emphasised the importance of the recent agreement by the Qatar Investment Authority to buy a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft together with Swiss oil trader Glencore.
“The two leaders agreed to continue joint efforts to further promote political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation between Russia and Qatar.” (2)
In brief, until the Trump administration settles in, Moscow would probably continue with its efforts to put the Assad regime in the strongest possible negotiating position. And Idlib, another al-Nusra stronghold, could be the next target.
Through its military intervention in Syria, Russia has proved that it can make a difference on the ground and that, undeniably, is of consequence. However, major powers’ long-term interests in the Middle East lie more in displaying their peacemaking capacity than resorting to force. The peoples of the Middle East are unable to resolve their problems and desperate for solutions. President Putin has been a strong critic of US interventions in Iraq and Libya for having led to chaos and devastation. The Syrian conflict presents him with a historic opportunity to take the initiative and prove that Russia is also capable of building peace.