Syria’s fragile ceasefire unravelling amid regional rifts
Beirut - The creaky Syrian ceasefire declared by Russia and Turkey on December 29th is fraying as the complex conflict veers towards a new phase that could determine the fate of the war-crippled country and the surrounding region.
Differences over strategic objectives among the principal outside powers involved in the conflict are sharpening while rebel groups accuse Syrian President Bashar Assad of violating the truce by seeking control of vital water supplies to the Damascus area as part of a starve-or-surrender campaign against opposition forces.
The continued fighting and growing signs of disagreement among Assad’s main allies — Russia and Iran — threaten to derail Moscow’s plans for peace talks scheduled for January 23rd in Kazakhstan.
The Russian move is seen as designed to bolster Moscow’s influence as a global power by overshadowing foundering UN peace efforts and provide it with an exit from its first military operation outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since its 1991 collapse.
Amid the diplomatic manoeuvring, military operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) appear to be escalating, although with little cohesion among the various sides.
Turkey, retaliating for a string of murderous ISIS attacks in its cities, stepped up its 4-month-old incursion into northern Syria and besieged the strategic town of al-Bab, ISIS’s westernmost stronghold in Syria.
Turkish forces are hammering the town with artillery fire and air strikes. The Russians joined the fray with air strikes south of the town in yet another twist in the constantly changing Syrian war.
Since Russia’s intervention in September 2015, it has largely ignored ISIS while focusing on those forces threatening Assad. But now, with Assad secure following the regime’s victory in reclaiming the key city of Aleppo in December, Moscow seeks to establish its anti-terrorism credentials, while achieving a greater strategic objective by further marginalising the United States’ muddled role in Syria.
The intensification of anti-ISIS operations in Syria leaves the jihadists in a steadily closing vice. The scene is similar to that in neighbouring Iraq where ISIS sent waves of suicide bombers against US-backed government forces in a desperate effort to shatter a major offensive that is steadily enveloping the northern city of Mosul, the last major ISIS bastion in Iraq.
This two-pronged assault on ISIS seems certain to crush the Islamic caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq that the group proclaimed at the zenith of its power in mid-2014. That victory, however notable when it comes, is unlikely to extinguish the ISIS movement or settle a Syrian conflict that looks like dragging on into a seventh year.
The accelerating tempo of terror attacks in recent weeks across the Middle East and Western Europe in which hundreds of people have been killed or wounded underlines the potency of the threat of ISIS retaliation for the impending loss of its caliphate.
However, ISIS’s capabilities may be curtailed by the loss of al-Bab, where some Arab sources say the group’s external operations arm has its headquarters. This would leave the city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital to the east, as ISIS’s last urban stronghold in Syria.
Rivalry among Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States has blocked a major push on Raqqa but in recent days the Americans have intensified air strikes on the city.
The US-led coalition fighting ISIS said that since December 20th it had mounted more air strikes against Raqqa and its environs than against Mosul. Between December 18th and January 1st, there were 52 strikes against Raqqa compared to 20 against Mosul.
“The United States, hoping to stretch the Islamic State’s fighters and resources thin by forcing it to fight for both cities simultaneously, is eager to launch an offensive against the Syrian stronghold as quickly as possible,” the US security consultancy Stratfor observed.
However, it noted, “significant hurdles to the Raqqa operation have arisen… Not all of the US coalition allies share its desire.”
One key obstacle is that the US-backed forces concerned are predominantly Kurdish, and Raqqa is mostly Arab. Turkey in particular, alarmed at the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish enclave along its southern border, opposes any offensive under those conditions.
The regime’s December victory in recapturing the eastern sector of Aleppo, held by rebel forces since mid-2012, consolidated Damascus’s control over much of Syria.
It also emphasised Assad’s complete dependence on Russia and Iran to keep him in power — and thus exposed his greatest weakness.
The differences among Moscow, Tehran, Ankara and Damascus have become more pronounced since the Aleppo fighting ended.
Russia and Iran do not see eye to eye on key issues. Russia, having secured Assad’s rule over much of Syria and gained its long-sought Middle East foothold with which to challenge the United States as a global power, has no enthusiasm for being in an open-ended conflict as the Americans did in Iraq before their withdrawal in December 2011.
“Russia is looking for a way out,” Stratfor concluded. That, however, demands a political solution, which, given the divergent agendas of Assad’s foreign allies, there seems little prospect of one.
Turkey wants to expand its influence across the Sunni world while Iran wants to control Syria as the western end of the strategic corridor it is trying to stitch together from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon to confront Israel.