March 31, 2017
The third Astana meeting on Syria ended two weeks ago, without any progress after the opposition boycotted the meeting. Russia, Turkey and Iran, guarantors of the ceasefire regime, issued a joint statement in which they underlined the interlinkage between the Geneva and Astana processes and expressed their support for the fifth round of Geneva talks to start on March 23, 2017. They also said that the fourth round of the Astana talks would be held on May 3-4 with preliminary expert consultations on April 18-19, in Tehran.
The Geneva talks started as scheduled on March 23. At the end of the day, UN Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura said that he was expecting neither breakthroughs nor breakdowns. He added that agreement on the agenda was in itself a mark of progress. In brief, rounds of talks are following one another in Astana and Geneva but making little headway.
The Syrian front
At present, attention appears to have focused on dislodging ISIS from Raqqa. But there also, the future looks uncertain. For obvious reasons, the Trump administration has been unable to make a good start with Moscow. Moreover, it may not follow in Obama’s footsteps in relations with Iran, another important player in Syria. Turkey’s relations with Russia and the United States remain unsettled. Yet, in view of the inability of Syrians to come to grips with their problems, views on the country’s future are filtering out from external quarters. And, military operations against ISIS in Syria also offer clues.
During the peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana (January 23-24), Russian diplomats circulated to the opposition a draft constitution for Syria which was rejected. In its first chapter of seventeen articles, this draft refers to Syria’s territorial integrity six times. It says that Syria consists of constituent parts and law would state the number of constituent parts, their boundaries and status. In article 10 it says, “The territory of Syria is inalienable. State borders may be changed only after a referendum among all Syrian citizens, as the expression of the will of the Syrian people.” It also refers to “Kurdish cultural autonomy”.
On the US side, think-tanks speculating on Syria’s future are referring to the possibility of having a number of autonomous zones in the north, at least until the country is united under a new leadership. Since some of these zones are likely to be dominated by the PYD/PYG, they are also suggesting measures designed to address Turkey’s concerns.
The foregoing, together with indications from the battlefield, show that while Moscow and Washington wish to remain partners with Turkey in Syria they do not intend to stop cooperating with the YPG in liberating Raqqa and beyond. So, they would keep trying, as Secretary Tillerson must have done in Ankara yesterday, to convince the Turkish government that they remain committed to Syria’s territorial integrity and also urge the PYD/YPG to refrain from provoking Turkey.
During President Obama’s last year in office, the US State Department took every opportunity to refer to Turkey as “a most important ally”, “a key partner in the counter-ISIS coalition”, “a close ally” while expressing cautiously worded criticism on a range of issues. In his joint press conference with Minister Çavuşoğlu in Ankara, Secretary Tillerson only had words of praise for Turkey and US-Turkish partnership. He expressed a desire to deepen trade and investment ties between the two countries. In defining the broad shared regional goals of the United States and Turkey he mentioned “reducing Iran’s ability to disrupt the region; finding a settlement in Syria that allows Syrians to return home; and supporting Iraqis to build a strong, independent, and inclusive government in Baghdad.”
A word of caution may be needed here: One can surely agree with the last two of these “shared goals” but it is difficult to say that Ankara and the Trump administration would ever see eye to eye on Iran. Because by now, the Turkish government must have learnt through bitter experience that regional conflicts/external interventions do not serve Turkey’s interests.
Secretary Tillerson referred to “zones of stabilization” in Syria. It seems that this a less ambitious goal than “safe-havens” or “no-fly-zones” once advocated by Turkey. The announcement by Turkish authorities on Thursday that a hundred thousand Syrians could return to a rebuilt al Bab should be no coincidence.
Mr. Tillerson did not respond to specific questions regarding the PYD/YPG. But he said: “These are not easy decisions. There are difficult choices that have to be made.”
And finally, this is what he said regarding the Syrian President: “I think the status and the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” A few years ago, such a statement would have created a huge backlash in Ankara. Today it only shows how positions have evolved or rather how they have come full circle.
The terrorist/moderate quandary
The second question which appears to remain high on behind the scenes Syria-related agenda is the separation of “terrorists” and the “moderates”. On February 22, 2016, the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), had issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council were excluded from the cessation of hostilities. It was obvious even on that very day that agreeing on who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist” would prove to be a huge task in a conflict/region characterized by murky relationships.
Secretary Tillerson, addressing the Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS on March 22, said: “Turkey has pushed ISIS off the Turkey-Syria border through Operation Euphrates Shield. This entire border is now inaccessible to ISIS, and we will ensure that it stays that way…” In Ankara, he went a step further. He said that “the Turkish Government has stopped the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria.”
Yet, some analysts observe that Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Salafist militia, recently split in two, some members joining al-Qaida in Idlib and others the Free Syrian Army which together with Turkish Armed Forces freed al Bab from ISIS. Thus, primarily Russia but perhaps also the US may now be expecting Turkey to separate the terrorists from the moderates within the Free Syrian Army.
It may be useful to recall in this connection what Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the UN Security Council meeting on September 21, 2016:
“… I mentioned the list that our US partners handed over to us, which lists about 150 organizations as participants of the cessation of hostilities regime. However, immediately after September 12, over 20 of these groups officially declared that they will not comply with the agreements. By the way, Ahrar al-Sham, which we proposed including on the list of terrorist organizations together with another group, Jaish al-Islam, as part of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, is also on that list. Our partners then said that this will prevent us from working efficiently. As a goodwill gesture we did not insist at that time, limiting terrorist lists to Jabhat al-Nusra and the so-called Islamic State.
“Right after it was announced on September 12 that the Russian-US agreements had come into force, the Ahrar al-Sham leadership officially declared that it will not comply with them, because they designate Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization while Ahrar al-Sham does not regard it as such and closely collaborates with it.”
The battle for Mosul
The rising number of civilians reported killed in US-led airstrikes in Mosul has led to accusations that the US is acting without sufficient regard for lives of noncombatants. Since President Trump had consistently advocated a more aggressive campaign against ISIS, it is now assumed that the Pentagon has now given American pilots more latitude in choosing their targets. This is unfortunate because, as the vast majority of Middle East analysts agree, liberating Raqqa and Mosul will not be end of ISIS and its likes. Rising civilian casualties in the battle to take back these cities will only deepen local resentment against the US and its allies and create new problems of governance in recaptured territories. The people of Iraq have not lived in peace since 1980, the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war. Those who were born then are approaching early middle age. Those who were born during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the First Gulf War are now in their late-twenties. Those who were born in 2003, the year of the US invasion, are now in high school. In view of his setbacks in Washington President Trump may desperately need a victory elsewhere. But he would be wise not to take a “swift victory, no matter what the cost” kind of attitude toward Mosul.