Yes—if Russia decides to press home its advantageby Michael Stephens / February 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
We are about to see another twist in the tale that is Syria’s seemingly endless war, which has seen an estimated 250,000 Syrians killed and a further 4.3 million flee the country. In a return to the years of the Cold War, the US and Russia sat down in Munich last Friday to hammer out a truce. Currently, Russia is launching airstrikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies, while the US is lending its support to certain groups from the same camp. Both sides hoped the proposed agreement would help to bring a “nationwide cessation of hostilities” within a week, after five years of war. (Certain groups including Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, will continue to be targeted in airstrikes from both countries, even once the planned ceasefire kicks in.)
The truce was agreed, and Russia and the US indeed declared that they intended to cease hostilities within a week. The fragility of this proposed agreement (yet to come into effect) was thrown into sharp relief yesterday, when suspected Russian missile strikes hit three hospitals (including one children’s hospital) in northern Syria: two of these in Idlib province, one in Aleppo province. Currently, the ceasefire plan is still in place.
Since the negotiations began, access for humanitarian aid across Syria has been secured, and agencies such as the International Red Cross have gone into action with food convoys and air drops across the country. The UN delivered aid to civilians near the ISIS-held town of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus, on Sunday. The promise of the truce has already provided partial help for some of Syria’s beleaguered civilian population, and when it comes into full effect should provide significant relief.
But as with all things in Syria, it may not go as smoothly as the two Great Powers had hoped. Russia has explicitly ruled out that it will stop airstrikes against what it labels terrorists (read: all groups fighting against Assad) and as a result fighting has intensified on the ground in recent days. (The US and its allies have also said they will continue to bomb IS.) Moscow and its ally Assad are looking to press home their advantage against rebel groups operating around Syria’s largest city, Aleppo—or what remains of it. Casualties are mounting, both civilian and rebel, as the remnants of the opposition is encircled and systematically destroyed with massive Russian airpower. This is sending tens of thousands of refugees flooding toward the Turkish border.
The rapid decline of what is left of the Free Syrian Army and more moderate Islamist rebels has alarmed both Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Both countries appear to have realised that without their direct intervention to stop the swing of the war toward Assad and his friends in Moscow that there can only be one outcome, which is that Assad will remain in power and gradually take back all of the country. Saudi Arabia appears to be moving urgently into action, saying that it will deploy 20 fighter aircraft to bases in southern Turkey to fight IS. Meanwhile. Turkey has begun to take the gloves off. It is shelling Syrian Kurdish forces, who have tried to take advantage of the weakened rebel footing to the north and east of Aleppo and unite their two blocks of territory which stretches across much of northern Syria.
Things appear to be coming to a head in this small corner of the country in which all of Syria’s major warring factions, (Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the rebels, the Assad regime and the Kurds) are beginning to coalesce. Increasingly the fight, like the recent negotiations in Munich, is beginning to resemble a zero sum game in which all parties are trying desperately to secure their interests using military force.
Ultimately it may be this zero-sum game that brings the different sides into a compromise. If Saudi planes begin to fly over Syrian skies supported by Turkish air defences and artillery, and if they choose to target more than just IS, then the potential for escalation between Saudi Arabia and Russia becomes very ominous indeed. Saudi Arabia’s newly-found aggressive foreign policy doctrine would certainly meet its match in the form of Russian-backed forces, but this might be what makes all sides realise that nothing can be gained from escalating the conflict, and indeed that military power cannot lead to desired political results.
The Russian military intervention on behalf of the regime last year changed the game for all parties in Syria. And until recently it appeared that no power was willing to do the same for any faction of opposition rebels. But faced with the prospect of imminent defeat, the rebel-backers appear to be upping the ante. It is unclear whether the Munich ceasefire deal can hold under the present circumstances: too much is on the line for each party involved. The rebels are unlikely to back down until they are able to push Assad’s forces away from encircling Aleppo. Likewise, the Turks are unlikely to back down if the Syrian Kurds do not back away from the area.
Much now depends on Russia, and whether it decides against pressing home the advantage around Aleppo in the short term. If the Russians do keep escalating their offensives, it is only natural to assume that both Turkey and Saudi Arabia will look to respond. The peace plan outlined in Munich will then lie in tatters, and ultimately it may take the real threat of interstate war to make all sides consider that the best way forward is an immediate cessation to hostilities.