After Aleppo, Syria faces uncertainty as new chapter unfolds
Beirut - With Syrian President Bashar Assad seemingly secure after his Russian and Iranian allies obliterated the rebels’ last major urban strongholds in Aleppo in a brutal six-month siege, the Syrian war is moving into a crucial political phase that could decide the ravaged country’s fate and produce a drastically changed geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog organisation that monitors the war, reported that the Assad regime had taken control of eastern Aleppo, which rebels had held since mid- 2012, on December 21st after the last group of fighters was evacuated to rebel territory in neighbouring Idlib province.
That ended one of the bloodiest chapters in a war notorious for its savagery on both sides but, although large-scale fighting has stopped, the future remains acutely uncertain, with an estimated 150,000 rebels spread out across Syria.
Russia, Turkey and Iran, among the most fervent backers of the Syrian war, have essentially hijacked the faltering diplomatic process, exploiting the military conquest of eastern Aleppo and the indiscriminate bombardment that made it possible.
They launched their initiative with talks December 20th in Moscow called by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a meeting that pointedly excluded the United States. That underlined how US President Barack Obama’s failure to intervene to end the conflict has left the United States in the diplomatic cold at a time when its influence in the Middle East is steadily declining as it disengages from a region where it has been the dominant power for half a century.
The tripartite talks went ahead despite the assassination in Ankara of Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov on December 19th by a Turkish policeman seeking revenge for the obliteration of eastern Aleppo.
“For Russia and Turkey in particular, the show of diplomacy in the wake of… Karlov’s murder was important to protect their budding rapprochement — and the economic benefits and proactive collaboration on Syria that it allows,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed.
But, it cautioned, the attempt “to revive a political process”, in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s words, to end the Syrian conflict will not be able to paper over the divergent goals that the three parties… hold for Syria.”
If the tripartite talks’ initiative succeeds, it will dramatically change the tangled and fractious diplomatic process that centred on the United Nations where Russia has repeatedly blocked initiatives by the UN Security Council by using its veto to ensure that Assad remains in power.
Significantly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose regime has backed Syrian rebel forces, was persuaded to swing behind preserving the Assad regime in a peace agreement to ensure that the Kurds, Ankara’s prime enemy, do not establish a mini-state on Turkey’s southern border.
Winning over Turkey was of critical importance, because it is a major supporter of the Syrian rebels. Cutting off their logistical support would be a decisive factor in ending the war.
“It seems clear now that Putin and… Erdogan signed a non-aggression pact when they met in Saint Petersburg on August 9th, essentially confirming the partition of Syria into zones of influence,” French analyst Fabrice Balanche observed in a December 15th paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
With the fall of eastern Aleppo, Russia and Iran, which have provided the military muscle that has kept Assad’s regime in place, appear to be moving towards a political endgame that will burnish their regional ambitions and drastically change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
The tripartite initiative is clearly intended to consolidate Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria before US President-elect Donald Trump takes office January 20th.
Although Trump’s policy has yet to be announced, he has indicated he was prepared to cooperate globally with Moscow and does not view removing Assad as a prerequisite for a political settlement, unlike Obama.
This fits the strategies of Russia and Iran. They fear that, without a strong regime, Syria could collapse into anarchy. They say Assad has to stay, for now at least, to prevent the collapse of the regime’s pervasive security apparatus, which is needed to control whatever territory they can recover for the president.
The problem for Trump will be Iran. He has said he would take a strong line with Tehran and its nuclear ambitions and has indicated his opposition to the landmark nuclear agreement the Islamic Republic reached with US-led global powers in July 2015, a position that puts him in direct conflict with Tehran as it seeks to expand Shia power across the Sunni-dominated region.
Assad has also been sidelined by the trilateral initiative but, since he is totally reliant on Russian and Iranian military firepower to preserve his regime, he is unlikely to publicly defy Moscow and Tehran.