MESOP TODAYS COMMENTARY BY FABRICE BALANCHE Expert Commentary – Syria: A Tactical—Not Strategic—Ceasefire

January 6, 2017 –  The Newsletter – Fabrice Balanche – Visiting Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy – The agreement between Turkey and Russia stipulates a halt to the fighting throughout Syrian territory from midnight on December 29, with the exception of areas with a Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Nusra Front) or Islamic State presence. In addition, the agreement provides for President Bashar al-Assad to remain in power until the end of his presidential term in June 2021. The other actors in the conflict (USA and Arab Gulf countries) and the entire Syrian opposition are invited to join the negotiations to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan planned for next month. The UN, the United States, and even the opposition umbrella Syrian National Coalition welcomed the agreement. But make no mistake; the inclusion of Bashar el Assad’s eventual departure is only a simple way of attracting the Syrian opposition to the negotiating table while allowing the Western and Gulf countries to save face by adhering to this peace process. What guarantees can Russia give on Bashar el Assad’s departure in 2021?

Kurds risk falling victim to Russian-Turkish deal

This cease-fire reflects, above all, the strengthening of collaboration between Russia and Turkey. It reinforces the status of Russian President Vladimir Putin as the great architect of the peace process in Syria and the marginalization of the USA. For their part, the Iranians are discreet, preferring to leave the spotlight to Vladimir Putin. It is true that Russian intervention has made it possible to reverse the balance of power in the military field, but this would not have been possible without the support of the pro-Iranian ground forces engaged alongside the Syrian army. The Islamic Republic has also been the main economic supporter of the Assad government since the beginning of the conflict.

On the domestic front, the agreement does not preclude a future Syrian Army offensive towards Idlib province, held by Fatah al-Sham.  As for Turkey, it can pursue the siege of al-Bab, a city held by the Islamic State. The agreement does not mention anything about the forces of the PYD (Syrian Kurds), considered by Turkey to be a terrorist Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s own militant Kurdish group, the PKK. This implies that after al-Bab, Turkey could very well turn towards the town of Manbij, now under PYD’s.  The Kurds are likely to pay the cost of Russian-Turkish cooperation, which does not at all bother Assad, who is opposed to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region. That the Syrian army asked the PYD’s militia to evacuate the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud in Aleppo, under their control since July 2012, before January 1, 2017, is further evidence that the Syrian regime is ready to play hardball with the Kurds

The ceasefire divides the rebels

The Russian Ministry of Defense published a list of the “moderate” rebel groups included in the ceasefire (Failaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Siwar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Mujahidin, Jaysh Idlib, Jahbat al-Shamyah), which totals 65,000 fighters. Until now, not all of these groups have formally confirmed that they are participating in the truce. The factions belonging to the “Southern Front” (23,000 fighters) are not included, but the hostilities have already ceased in the province of Deraa (where the Southern Front is active) over a year ago, thanks to an agreement between Russia and Jordan.

So the ceasefire will mainly affect areas around Damascus as these are areas where Fatah al-Sham doesn’t have a strong presence. The rebellious pocket of Rastan in northern Hama does not present a major threat to the regime, so the ceasefire will hold there too. As for the pro-Turkey rebels in northeastern Aleppo province, they have no reason to attack the Syrian army; Turkey is paying them to take al-Bab and contain the Syrian Democratic Forces – a U.S.-backed military coalition led by the PYD, which is attempting to unify the Kurdish territories along Turkey’s border.

The ceasefire must now allow the Syrian government to secure a new rebel surrender. The regime’s victory in Aleppo accelerated the process of “reconciliations,” by which surrounded rebels are given safe passage from their enclaves to safe territory. This is exemplified by rebel departures from al-Tel and Qodsaya, in the suburbs of Damascus. These towns have returned to the bosom of Bashar al-Assad. The most successful victory for the Syrian army today would be the surrender of Douma, the stronghold of Jaysh al-Islam, which would quickly lead to the fall of all of Eastern Ghouta.

The Russian-Turkish agreement has also provoked cleavages within the rebel groups. The powerful Ahrar al-Sham is about to explode: its radical branch wants to merge with Fatah al-Sham, while another faction remains loyal to the group’s Turkish backers. These internal divisions weaken numerous factions and have exacerbated tensions between Fatah al-Sham and the rest of the rebellion. In the province of Idlib, Fatah al-Sham’s hegemony has lukewarm support from several rebel groups that might defect if provided with Russian-Turkish protection. The fragmentation of Jaysh al-Fatah (the Conquest Army), the coalition leaded by Fatah al-Sham, is a prerequisite for the offensive that the Syrian army and its allies are preparing to launch against Idlib.

The next offensive is being prepared

The ceasefire has an obvious tactical dimension, just like those that preceded it. After a powerful offensive, Russia has unilaterally declared a truce, allowing the armed ground forces to secure the conquered areas against a rebel counter-offensive. Now, the lull on the western front could be leveraged to retake territory from the Islamic State in eastern Syria, as was the case last March, when following a ceasefire, it retook the city of Palmyra. Before the Palmyra attack, Vladimir Putin promised the withdrawal of “some Russian troops,’’ but ‘’only if the cease-fire is successful.” In truth, this probably means that he is proceeding with a simple rotation of troops and equipment, in order to prepare the next major offensive.