by Julien Barnes-Dacey
We have reached yet another depressing inflection point in the Syrian Civil War. Syrian government forces with the support of Russian air power have cut off the last remaining major supply route to rebels in Aleppo city, setting the stage for a siege. Fearing the prospect of bombardment and starvation, tens of thousands of Syrians are yet again fleeing toward Turkey and the hope of safety. And once again, understandable voices decry the inhumanity of the war and demand that “something” be done to end the tragedy and punish the crimes of the Syrian regime and their Russian enablers.
But the real question remains what can usefully be done? The idea of continued negotiations is clearly out of favor. The government’s military advances have been accompanied by the predictable collapse of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, with the opposition delegation unwilling and politically unable to remain at the table as the regime tightens the screw on Aleppo. While a new meeting of external powers, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), is planned for this week in Munich, there is little optimism that it will deliver real progress. US secretary of State John Kerry is holding tight to the centrality of negotiations. But the regime and its backers are feeling too strong for compromise, and the opposition is not feeling weak enough to surrender.
With the regime appearing to build momentum toward victory on the back of wider recent gains in Latakia and Daraa the desired response by many is to put negotiations on hold, increase lethal support to the various factions of the opposition and seek a more favorable military balance for a deal. A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides, and we’re likely to now enter a new, equally devastating, phase.
It’s worth remembering that the conflict has faced similar moments before. It was barely eight months ago that some observers, including a large number of Western diplomats, were heralding impending regime collapse as the rebel Army of Conquest advanced through Idlib and Latakia, and the Southern Front strengthened itself in Daraa. Analysis then rested on an unlikely acceptance of defeat by Assad’s external backers and the current talk of impending Assad victory assumes an equally unlikely static position by the opposition’s backers.
Just as Russia and Iran stepped in as the government teetered on the alleged brink last summer, so the backers of the opposition can now be expected to step up their own game. After five years of brutal conflict it’s almost inconceivable that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in particular, will walk away from the fight, accepting an Assad victory. While both countries are now consumed by other struggles, Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Turkey against Kurds in its own southeast, Syria remains too important, and has become too personalized for the leaders simply to walk away.
And the regime is not on the verge of outright victory. Certainly, the Russian-facilitated advance has made a huge difference, consolidating the regime’s position and putting it back on the offensive. The removal of Assad in the near future, whether militarily or politically, is now off the table – whatever Western diplomats may choose to read into Russian messaging suggesting greater flexibility over his position during recent ISSG talks. For Russia and Iran alike, Assad remains the immediate guarantor of their interests, even if they are not tied to him for the long term. Both know that in the current climate any rapid transition away from Assad, even if tightly managed to secure their wider interests, would risk a potentially uncontrollable wider unravelling.
But still, Assad’s forces remain over-stretched and it is not clear that the regime has the resources to maintain activities on multiple fronts, let alone engage in a long siege of Aleppo or move towards actually taking control of the city. Unlike elsewhere, the rebels are less likely to be willing to surrender, even under siege conditions, given the strategic importance of the city. Moreover, there are a dwindling number of other rebel-held areas they could head to as part of any surrender package. There is still a potentially long fight ahead and those close to the thinking in Damascus and Moscow suggest a focus on securing sufficient strength to dictate the terms of a political deal rather than outright military victory.
The opposition and its backers remain focused on denying them that strength. The extent to which they succeed depends a great deal on the US position. Some are now pressing for a dramatically stepped up US intervention in the form of something like a no-fly zone, but given that this would entail the risk of Russian and US fighters clashing and the possible outbreak of a wider conflict this seems an unlikely prospect. This is particularly true given real question marks over whether or not a safe zone would actually improve protection for civilians and strong US concerns about the nature of potential ground partners – as compared to Moscow’s willingness to fully embrace partnership with the Syrian army and affiliated militias backed by Iran.
A more likely outcome is that Washington will succumb to pressure to open up the flow of advanced weapons to the Syrian opposition, namely the provision of more TOW anti-tank missiles which made such an impact in blunting initial regime advances under cover of Russian air power in September and October.
Regional actors, as well as various political figures in the United States, and probably the French in Europe, are now likely to put considerable pressure on Washington to find a way to re-open the supply route into Aleppo city, possibly through the last remaining Turkish border crossing still in the hands of rebels, Bab al-Hawa. The Obama administration appears to reflexively doubt the merit of this military approach but withstanding the political pressures to do something in the face of Russia’s activism and the moribund political process will be hard.
For its part Saudi Arabia is now trying to entice the US into greater direct intervention in Syria as part of a stepped up campaign against ISIS, hoping that this will have more traction with Obama than the idea of intervening to assist rebels in the fight against Assad. The ultimate aim in Riyadh nonetheless remains the latter and it is no coincidence that Riyadh is pitching this willingness to put Saudi troops into Syria to fight ISIS, on the condition that US does the same, at the exact moment as the threat against Aleppo has intensified. Given the lack of Saudi focus on ISIS to date, notably the reality that most of its fighter jets long ago gave up participation in coalition anti-ISIS strikes, as well as the ongoing burden of their fight in Yemen, there is little prospect of the Saudis making any meaningful troop deployment on this front. Still the Saudi approach, which has gained some wider Gulf backing, reflects the perceived urgency of somehow locking the US into Syria before Assad can make many further gains.
For the United States, increased weapons flows are a more palatable alternative than direct intervention. These new weapons will be aimed not so much at securing decisive victories, but at keeping the opposition alive as a viable fighting force, preventing the fall of Aleppo and making Russia pay a higher price for their ongoing support. Of course, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are also very focused on the fact that 2017 will usher in a new US president and hope that the new office holder will be willing to up US intervention in the conflict, something that is distinctly possible given US political dynamics and the expected desire of a new president to project assertiveness as a mark of contrast with Obama’s perceived timidity. Keeping the rebels ready for this moment is likely to have already emerged as a critical strategy of the opposition and its backers.
So, as so often in the Syrian civil war, events seem to be conspiring to deny all sides victory and keep the war going and going. A longer conflict will mean more destruction and more killing, and the ever-present possibility of escalation to an even wider conflict. And while some may hope that putting pressure on Russian forces opens a political solution, everything suggests that the Russians and their partners will be quite willing to in turn up the ante of their own, just as Moscow used the Turkish downing of one its fighter jets to claim even greater control of the skies over northern Syria. This pattern of escalation and counter-escalation may in the longer term finally yield a political deal but at that point both sides will be negotiating over an utter wasteland.
All of which leaves you with the reality that although the political process is now on the ropes, these talks still ultimately remain the most likely means of escaping the futile logic that has driven the conflict for five years now. In the end, the moral dilemma is this: there is no politically acceptable military approach that offers a viable path towards securing the protection and humanitarian access the Syrian people desperately need without risking a wider war. By contrast pushing political talks with Russia, despite its key role backing Assad with military strikes, many of which appear to be hitting civilians, represents the best way of delivering some openings, if not on the high-level political front then at least in terms of localized cease fires and humanitarian access. Although any agreements would be likely to initially favor the regime they will still deliver needed respite to the local population – and it should not be forgotten that de-escalation does not necessarily play to the regime’s strength given the substantial internal pressures contained by ongoing mobilization.
Secretary Kerry has taken a lot of heat for saying that political talks can still deliver something, but he is focusing efforts on the one front that can still make a difference. And this is where Europe, which has remained silent and ineffective despite occupying a quarter of the ISSG seats and bearing the burden of spillover from the conflict, urgently needs to step up its own game. It would of course be easier and more satisfying to condemn the Russian position in moralistic terms, and walk away from talks while the regional powers escalate the fight. Ultimately though this will only condemn the Syrian people to even more misery. Instead the US and Europe need to work both sides of the conflict more intensely than ever before, regional allies and Russian and Iranian adversaries alike, in a bid to urgently resuscitate the political track.
Image: Aleppo, by Joshua Tabti, via Flickr.
Reprinted, with permission, from the European Council on Foreign Relations where Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow.