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March 6, 2021

Syria, whereto now?

The situation in Syria experienced a dramatic evolution in recent weeks through the succession of unpredictable events. We are not referring from this standpoint to the shooting down of the Russian tactical bomber by Turkish fighter jets on 24 November 2015, which significantly raised tensions in the Mideast, the Russian-Turkish hostility suddenly becoming overt and on the rise. Nor to the fact that negotiations for a ceasefire on the ground, which started at the end of January 2016, failed several days later.  We are referring to the fact that only a few days later, on February 12, a ceasefire agreement was signed under the aegis of the U.S. and Russia, the promoters of the negotiations format that experienced such ups and downs. Great doubts had already been expressed, at the Munich conference (February 12-14), about the chances of its materialization, although John Kerry, the head of American diplomacy, had stated that it is known what has to be done and the necessary capabilities exist in this sense. The armistice was scheduled to come into force within a week, so by the following Friday, February 19. In the meantime, the combatant groups were expected to adhere to the ceasefire and the organizers to sort through the rebel groups based on their alignment with terrorist groups. Undeniably, either the deadline was too short or the foreign forces involved tried to impose their own agenda (Russia for instance was blamed for seeking to impose the Assad regime’s domination in the country’s northern region, near the border with Turkey, and of allegedly continuing to carry out air strikes in the Aleppo region), but the agreement was not respected. Neither the U.S. nor Russia gave up and a new agreement was announced on February 22, establishing a new deadline for the ceasefire (another week), deadline that expired on Saturday, February 27. It has to be said that by ceasefire both agreements understood the armistice between the forces of the Syrian regime and those of the moderate opposition, organizations such as Al Qaeda and Al Nusra being excluded, just as DAESH was, which controls a significant part of the Syrian territory. Likewise, it has to be reminded that the armistice has to open the way for the resumption of negotiations in Geneva over the implementation of the peace plan, primarily the creation of conditions for holding elections and defining Syria’s future through popular will. Simultaneously, the forces of the international coalition were expected to carry out operations to eliminate Daesh and the terrorist organizations excluded from the agreement.

During the week that passed since the second ceasefire agreement was announced, several things became known, things that help us make sense of this avalanche of events that are decisive for the evolution of the Syrian crisis. Firstly, we are talking about evolutions that have so far been confidential for reasons related to the operational security of the ongoing military operations. Among them we can include the Pentagon news that an American-Russian military working group has operated since October 2015, having the mission to provide mutual notifications on the expansion of military actions so as to avoid Russian-American clashes and to deconflict the military effort in Syria. The Pentagon has admitted that, in line with the bilateral document signed, a “memorandum of understanding,” these contacts were fruitful, American and Russian military experts respecting the areas of operation established and notifying each other about ongoing operations. Here we find one of the explanations for both the fact that it was possible to conclude two armistice agreements in such a short interval, agreements reached and honoured by the diplomacies in Washington and Moscow, and something else alike. Namely, that the Obama Administration’s policy has come under an extremely violent barrage of domestic and foreign criticism toward its policy in the Syrian file. It is sufficient to recall Senator John McCain’s speech at the security summit in Munich, when those present noticed the virulence of the attack against the Syrian policy of the Obama Administration, invited to reveal the strategy it implements and being suspected of having no strategy. An analyst inferred at the time that a very dangerous stage has been reached and wrote on his blog: “However, momentum has been a strange game in Syria and has taken strange terms as unknown actors become present in the region. There are also multiple wild card players to take into consideration that walk a fine line in regard to the role they play and the sides they take in the conflict.”

Secondly, another fact has become clear. NATO – in fact the U.S. – seeks that the implementation of the armistice and the subsequent action meant to materialize the provisions of the roadmap for peace in Syria should be made in parallel with an ever more active NATO involvement, as an organization, in this country’s post-conflict reconstruction. The meeting between U.S. Secretary of Defence Ash Carter and his counterparts from NATO and from the other member states of the anti-Daesh coalition, meeting that took place on February 10-11 at the NATO General HQ, pleads in this sense. According to news reports: “Seeking to recapture the Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, Washington wants a bigger European response to the chaos and failing states near Europe’s borders. Carter’s Call for NATO’s help came as defense ministers from the anti-Islamic State coalition met last week at NATO headquarters in Brussels for the first time, albeit with NATO insignia removed from the walls.” The same news reports inform us that the American insistence on NATO’s gradual involvement in Syria met the opposition of France and Germany: “Russia’s concerns over NATO expansion in eastern Europe, Paris and Berlin are worried that deeper NATO involvement in Syria could be taken by Moscow as a provocation that the alliance is seeking to extend its influence.” The way in which events are evolving does not rule out new developments in this sense.

Thirdly, the behaviour of the two powers that sponsored the armistice revealed a medium-term outlook on the developments in this file. Russia has taken on the mission to discuss with Iran and the Assad administration the adherence to the plans proposed (including with Saudi Arabia), and the U.S. to discuss with the other external actors involved in Syria. For instance, Russian President V. Putin discussed on February 24 among others with the Iranian, Saudi, Israeli and Syrian leaders about the signing of the new agreement. Details are not known, but these diplomatic contacts in particular are extremely subtle and comprehensive, having multiple goals and unexpected results in several foreign policy files. In his talk with the Iranian leader, for instance, Putin, according to the official communiqué, discussed “the initiatives and proposals set out in the joint Russian-US statement on cessation of hostilities in Syria”; with the Saudi leader, “Mr. Putin gave a detailed explanation of the proposals put forward in the Russian-U.S. joint statement on a settlement in Syria. The King of Saudi Arabia welcomed the agreement and expressed his readiness to work together with Russia to implement them”; and with Israeli leader B. Netanyahu “the two leaders discussed the partnership and cooperation between Russia and Israel on current issues on the Middle East and bilateral agendas.”

Last but not least, a domestic U.S. dispute is involved, which has to do with Washington’s major foreign policy orientations. While the Obama Administration seeks to solve the Syrian crisis in stages – armistice between the main groups apart from the aforementioned terrorist ones and Daesh, the phased implementation of the peace plan and the construction of a secular unitary or federal state –, the American opposition, dissatisfied, has among its main objectives the immediate removal of the Assad regime. Such a contradiction in U.S. foreign policy is not new, especially since an energetic and increasingly heated presidential elections campaign is taking place, but the opposition’s attacks on the Obama Administration’s Syrian policy couple with the Pentagon, NATO and even the White House adopting a hard line toward Russia’s assertiveness in Eastern Europe.

Russia too has ambiguities, being haunted by double game. For instance, in the current circumstances, when then ceasefire agreement is being implemented, there are voices that accuse Moscow of extending military operations in the north in order to strengthen Assad’s positions. At the same time, Moscow suspects that Washington invoking a Plan B in Syria in case the current ceasefire fails is an attempt to push Russia into a corner in order to extend or even amplify the sanctions over Ukraine. It is expected that Moscow would initiate such a plan too, which would mean the splitting of Syria. Because obviously Russia, which is already in a difficult economic situation, has to give answers simultaneously in Ukraine, where the crisis in Eastern Ukraine is showing no signs of absorption, in Syria, where the armistice reached can be derailed, and also in its relation with Europe, where the refugee crisis, caused to a significant extent by the failure to solve the Syrian file, is growing threateningly and is deepening intra-European contradictions. In all these three files, answers adapted to European and global security interests are expected from Russia, not answers motivated by imperial egotism.

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