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Tallha Abdulrazaq

Syria ceasefire could go up in smoke

Russia wants to end the costly war, on its terms, writes Abdulrazaq [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 December, 2016

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Comment: The main stumbling block behind this ceasefire is that the main brokers, Russia and Turkey, have different definitions of who the "terrorists" are, writes Tallha Abdulrazaq.

A Russia and Turkey-brokered nationwide ceasefire has come into effect in Syria at "zero hour" this morning.

Accordingly, many are excited over the prospect of peace being negotiated after well over five years of war that has claimed the lives of almost half a million Syrians, largely butchered at the hands of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

However, this is not the first time ceasefires have been announced, and already details are emerging that show that this latest deal, while unprecedented in the scale of its adoption, could very well go up in smoke.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are the main players

First, it might be instructive to look at the positions of the parties to the ceasefire. Russia, now a power that is arguably more relevant to Middle Eastern politics than the United States, is keen to impose this deal as the beginning of a new, all-encompassing peace accord.

Moscow's enthusiasm for the ceasefire stems from its desire to capitalise on the crushing defeat suffered by the Syrian opposition in Aleppo.

Not only does Russia want to impose a "peace of the victor" on the Syrian rebels and regional powers, but it also wants to end the costly war on its terms, as fast as possible. The Russian economy is in bad shape, and the entire world has seen the rust bucket it calls an aircraft carrier spewing black smog all over the Mediterranean, its warplanes barely clinging on.

Turkey is drifting ever deeper into the Kremlin's orbit after a tumultuous two years that saw Ankara develop feelings of betrayal by its NATO allies

Waging wars, even interventions against low-tech foes, is an expensive business, and Russia's economy that has been buffeted by western sanctions since its invasion and annexation of Crimea, has taken its toll.

Meanwhile, Turkey is drifting ever deeper into the Kremlin's orbit after a tumultuous two years that saw Ankara develop feelings of betrayal by its NATO allies, especially the United States. After Turkey shot down Russian warplanes, western powers - already scurrying in fear due to Russian actions in Ukraine - not only failed to rally in support of Turkey, but said that it would have to fight Russia alone if war broke out between the two Black Sea powers.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is therefore quite likely to wish to return, as close as possible, to the 'status quo ante bellum' without appearing to lose face. Turkey's problems with Russia aside, it has failed to convince the West to really get behind the Syrian opposition, despite all and sundry (bar a few notable exceptions) calling on Assad to go.

Meanwhile, it is taking care of three million refugees with very little international support, and feels it has done all it can, and can do no more.

Iran, perhaps the main beneficiary of the Syrian civil war, will likely be frustrated by Russia taking the lead and being so instrumental in saving the Assad regime from what seemed like almost certain defeat just a couple of years ago.

Tehran even did its best to derail the evacuation of Aleppo recently by imposing new truce conditions and by having their Shia jihadist proxies attack refugee buses.

Washington has lost so much influence that it was not even invited to recent talks in Moscow

This shows that Iran wants to press on to achieve in Syria the kind of total domination it enjoys in Iraq. This is simply because Iran's intervention is significantly less expensive than Russia’s, in that it is much cheaper to finance groups like the Lebanese Hizballah and various Iraqi Shia militant groups than it is to pay for the maintenance of naval bases, warplanes and thousands of military personnel.

Iran is under no illusions, however, that it is the junior partner in Russia's endeavour to participate in the genocide against the Syrian people.

At this juncture, it is almost pointless talking about the positions of the United States, the Assad regime or even, sadly, the Syrian opposition. As for the former, Washington has lost so much influence that it was not even invited to recent talks in Moscow, nor does it seem to have a seat at the table in the upcoming Astana "peace" conference.

With respect to the Syrian opposition, they have, rightly or wrongly, essentially been given the surrogate parent of Turkey to represent what remains of their interests at the negotiations, showing that Russia and Iran do not consider them to be legitimate.

That said, at least they seem to have more of a presence and legitimacy that simply does not exist for the Assad regime itself, now so heavily reliant on Russia and Iran that it is literally at their mercy.

Will the ceasefire hold?

The scope of adoption for the ceasefire agreement is unprecedented in scale. Although two nationwide ceasefires were agreed before this one, they invariably fell apart, mainly due to violation on the part of the Assad regime, and were doomed to failure as there was not much buy in from the rebels.

However, the main stumbling block behind this ceasefire is that the main brokers, Russia and Turkey, have different definitions of who the "terrorists" are.

The only thing that all parties agree upon definitively is that IS are terrorists

For the Turks, it is quite clear that the terrorists are not only Islamic State (IS) extremists, but also leftist Kurdish militants from the YPG and PYD who it believes are linked to its own Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). It is unlikely that the Turkish government would agree to sit down and make any deals if the Kurds have a seat at the table.

The Russians, on the other hand, appear ambivalent towards the Kurdish militants. They neither support them as Washington does, nor do they hate them as Ankara does.

Instead, Moscow views almost all armed groups opposed to Assad as "terrorists". It is largely because of its broad definition of what constitutes a "terrorist" that previous ceasefires have failed, as Russia and the regime it backs would continue hammering the opposition.

If Russia fails to rein in its junior partner Iran, then the entire agreement could unravel

Though Russia has recently published that it now considers Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups as "moderates" despite pushing to have them recognised as terrorist organisations just a few months ago, the only thing that all parties agree upon definitively is that IS are terrorists.

However, questions still remain over whether Russia will be able to restrain its Iranian partners from engaging other groups as if they were IS. Russia is, after all, planning on winding down its troop deployment following the ceasefire, showing that it wants to disengage and consolidate as fast as possible. If Russia fails to rein in its junior partner Iran, then the entire agreement could unravel.

Right now, it appears that the ceasefire will hold. The Syrian opposition is exhausted, as are the people, and Russia is hell bent on making sure that enough of those whom they were trying to convince the world were terrorists, are now considered as moderates so that it can capitalise on the Aleppo catastrophe.

Iran would be wise not to annoy its best friend on the UN Security Council, or it may well be left to a bellicose incoming US president in the form of Donald Trump.


Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute and winner of the 2015 Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. His research focuses on Middle Eastern security and counter-terrorism issues. 

Follow him on Twitter: @thewarjournal

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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