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Syria: A ceasefire doesn't guarantee peace

December 31, 2016

The arms are silent in Syria and civilian suffering could come to an end soon. But the story behind the ceasefire raises questions about long-term peace in the entire region.

Syrien Aleppo Waffenstillstand beschlossen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be lasting. Since midnight on Thursday, there has been almost no fighting in Syria, report both conflicting parties. The Russian and Turkish air forces have been flying air attacks over Al-Bab, a village in the northern part of the country, against the terror organization Islamic State (IS). The two countries have decided to continue fighting against "IS" and other jihadist groups.

At a peace conference slated for January 2017 in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, the ceasefire is expected to be expanded into a stabilized peace. The ceasefire is not only a humanitarian success. It reaffirms Russia's and its allies' assertion of leadership on the resolution of the conflict.

On Bashar al-Assad's side

This assertion of power arises not only from the military but also diplomatic history of the current agreement. It goes back to a meeting in Moscow just before Christmas between Russia and two of its most important allies, where the foreign and defense ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey met to coordinate further action. US Secretary of State John Kerry was not present, because he, like other Western politicians, was not invited.

The three allies also refrained from inviting UN representatives to their meeting - or even consulting them. In the past years, the UN repeatedly tried to push through resolutions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and they always failed because of the Russian veto. Now, Russia and its allies have implied that they would continue supporting the Assad regime. "Iran, Russia and Turkey reiterate their full respect for sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic as multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-sectarian, democratic and secular state," the Moscow Declaration published by the three states declared. At the same time, they also made it clear that they did not want to let the UN get in the way of their plans for Syria.

Kombobild Khamenei, Putin, Assad
Iran, Russia, and Syria are now likely to force through a peace deal amongst themselvesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Y. Badawi/A. Druzhinyn/AP Photo/A. Nikolsky

A victory for Russia, Iran and Turkey

It is becoming more and more obvious that the USA and its allies will not be able to implement their plans for Syria's political future - above all, the resignation of Assad. "With pro-government forces having made critical gains on the ground, the new alignment and the absence of any Western powers at the table all but guarantee that President Bashar al-Assad will continue to rule Syria under any resulting agreement despite President Obama's declaration more than five years ago that Mr. Assad had lost legitimacy and had to be removed," wrote the political analysts Ben Hubbard and David E. Sanger in the New York Times.

The American Middle East expert Andrew J. Tabler from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy finds this development unsettling. "When the Turks, the Iranians and the Russians all agree on a process without the US being in the room, you realize there is a problem for us," he wrote in an analysis on the institute's website.

It remains to be seen how President Donald Trump will react to this challenge. The Trump administration's Syria policy comes across as no more than a rough idea at the moment. The focus seems to be on fighting against IS and similar groups. However, Moscow and Iran have probably already dealt with this aspect of the conflict so that from Trump's point of view, there would be no need for military action in Syria. The good relationship between Trump and Putin could also lead to an improvement of relations between the US and Russia's partners, Iran and Turkey.

Iran cooperates with Hezbollah

Another unknown factor is the impact of Russia's Syria commitment in the Middle East. Even though Putin has two new Sunni partners, Turkey and Egypt, no one knows whether the Sunnis, the largest religious group in the region by far, will be impressed by the alliance.

USA Außenminister John Kerry zu Lage in Nahost
Kerry has been cut out of the Syria talksImage: Getty Images/Z. Gibson

They probably won't be. In fact, the opposite will probably happen. Moscow's new ally, Iran with its elite unit, the Revolutionary Guards, backed the much-hated Assad regime. Furthermore, Iran often relies on the help of a group classified as terrorist organization in the US and Europe - the Lebanese Hezbollah.

That is also another reason why Egypt's and Turkey's presence will not placate the Sunnis. If the ceasefire is adhered to and an agreement is made with Syria, Iran will certainly be awarded politically for its commitment - preferably with greater influence in the region. Then Iran would have a decisive voice in Syria and also Iraq.

The politic analyst Raghida Dergham expects this to happen. "Those responsible in Moscow will not protest against this request because they know Iran wants to drive IS out of Syria and Iraq and to carry out its Shia Crescent project. This goal is a strategic priority for Iran," Dergham wrote in the "Al Hayat" newspaper.  Shia Crescent refers to the development of a crescent-shaped Shiite region from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon.

The project could exacerbate the region's problems. The battle for Mosul already shows how tense relations between Sunnis and Shiites are. Sunni civilians in the Mosul region have already fallen victim to acts of vengeance carried out by Shiite militias, and they also fear being driven away from their place of origin. If the Shiites become a new power in and around Mosul, then Iraq would find itself under even stricter constraints of confessional logic than it has in the past. This could influence the entire region.

The Russian-Shiite triumph could cause new problems on another level. Israel would not only be dealing with the Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon but in Syria as well. The Jewish state faces massive challenges from Hezbollah and has often fought it in Lebanon, would not accept that. According to unconfirmed reports, the Israeli Air Force attacked Hezbollah positions near Damascus. If the Hezbollah stays in Syria in the future, the attack may not be the last of its kind.

The ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey does give peace a chance but it also involves many risks.