Will the Syrian ceasefire hold?

Erdogan with Russian President Putin

Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan argues that the latest Syrian ceasefire has more chance of holding than the previous ones because it includes armed factions on the ground.

The Syrian ceasefire announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which went into effect on Friday, is a consequence of the recovery of Aleppo by Syrian government forces and the subsequent talks held in Moscow involving the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The US and its Arab allies were excluded from the accord. They were not even consulted about it, and only learned of its details from the media, like hundreds of millions of ordinary Syrians, Arabs, Muslims and others concerned about the course of the crisis.

This underlines the extent to which an entire new phase is closing and a new one is opening for Syria and the entire region due to the strategic turnaround that occurred in Aleppo.

The ceasefire agreement excludes the Saudi-based component of the Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Committee, along with the Fateh ash-Sham Front (formerly al-Qaida-affiliated) and ISIS. Instead, it reaches out to the “moderate” political opposition and seven identified armed factions: Ahrar ash-Sham, Faylaq ash-Sham, Army of Islam, Suqour ash-Sham, the Mujahideen Army, the Idlib Army and the Shamiya Front.

What these armed groups have in common is that they all have significant forces on the ground; they all enjoy support from specific local constituencies; and they have all been sustained by strong backing from Turkey. Their leaders — who were mostly sidelined in the abortive political process discussed in Geneva and Vienna — are capable of making their fighters abide by the terms of the latest agreement.

The inclusion in the agreement of Ahrar ash-Sham – the most powerful armed faction and key component of the Jaish al-Fateh militia coalition (which voiced some reservations about the accord) – implies that both have broken with the Fateh ash-Sham (Nusra) Front, at least for now, and agreed to sit around the same negotiating table with the six other factions and the Syrian regime, with the blessing of Turkey and the approval of Russia. This is an unprecedented development as far as the armed Syrian opposition is concerned.

Turkey’s U-turn

This new state affairs in Syria is due to the U-turn in Turkish policy and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to commit to full coordination with Russia. The ceasefire, which applies to the majority of Syria’s populated areas, could well expand and bring in other groups.

Erdogan has opted to turn his back on his American and European allies and deal directly with Russia as the Middle East’s emergent new superpower. The remarks he made last week reflect his deep disillusionment with his NATO allies: he angrily accused them of not being serious about combating terror when they abandoned Turkey after it sent its forces into northern Syria to fight its Kurdish opponents and seek to eject ISIS forces from the town of al-Bab.

The current ceasefire in Syria has a far better chance of succeeding than all previous ones, if only because its guarantors are Russia and Turkey who have the capacity to apply serious pressure on the direct antagonists – the Syrian regime and the armed opposition respectively. Moreover, the accord calls for the withdrawal of Iranian and Hezbollah forces from Syrian territory as a means of reassuring the opposition factions (their presence, according to military experts, is in any case no longer a pressing necessity for the Syrian government post-Aleppo).

Syrian city of Aleppo

It remains possible that the countries excluded from the ceasefire agreement – notably the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — will try to sabotage it by one means or another. Despite their run-of-the-mill diplomatic statements voicing support for the accord, they resent the way Turkey has turned its back on them and the Syrian regime has improved its prospects of stabilising its rule, and could well seek to obstruct its implementation.

If the accord is implemented and the signatories abide by its terms, a number of things can be expected to happen:

  • Russian and Syrian forces would be able to focus on recapturing Palmyra and wresting the ancient city from ISIS control;
  • Turkish forces can intensify their efforts to seize al-Bab from ISIS where they have faced fierce and costly resistance;
  • And a new round of Syrian political negotiations will be launched that breaks with the Geneva/Vienna process and includes representatives of actual fighting forces on the ground. Damascus insists it is willing to engage in such talks at the earliest opportunity.

Putin cannily exploited the US presidential vacuum and the weakness of the outgoing administration, as well as Turkey’s anger at the US and the West in general, to settle the battle for Aleppo in favour of his allies. He is, as a result, poised to rewrite the rules of a political settlement in Syria in accordance with his strategy, while excluding all the other players who controlled the scene for the past several years – pumping billions of dollars and tens of thousands of tonnes of weapons into the regime-change agenda. The Russians are now suggesting that these parties could get involved in the talks at a later stage.

Like it or not, nobody can deny Russia’s acumen or its achievement.

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