Despite the dreadful fact that the fighting and the bloodshed continues on many spots on the ground, the Astana agreement for a truce in Syria backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran seems to present a good chance for peace. Last Tuesday, the above three foreign powers and their proxies implicated in the Syrian civil war, concluded a two days meeting in the Kazakh capital. According to Reuters, the communiqué issued afterwards says that the warring parties and their three foreign sponsors agreed to “to observe and ensure full compliance with the ceasefire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities of the ceasefire.”
No details are given though how this compliance monitoring system is to be organized, manned and supervised. In reality, the fighting continued on Wednesday in key fronts. The only concrete outcome of the Astana meeting is that the participants will meet again on 2 February to discuss the implementation details. Independent observers comment that it will be very difficult for this second effort for a ceasefire in Syria to succeed, for the same reasons that the March 2016 Geneva peace initiative under the UN failed.
Give peace a chance or what?
The Russia supported forces of President Bashar al Assad keep fighting the rebels of the Turkey sponsored Free Syrian Army west of Damascus to secure the water supply of the capital. Turkey itself on the pretext of fighting the ISIS jihadist butchers, bombs positions held by the Syrian Kurd forces of YPG. The Kurds themselves, who have established an autonomous region in northern Syria since 2011 when the carnage started, presently engage Islamic State (ISIS) in earnest in its stronghold at Raqqa.
Yet, if the current truce is to broadly hold, there is a good chance that it may evolve into a political negotiation for the future of the war devastated country. Understandably, ISIS and the fighters of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Al Nusra Front, will continue to be confronted by all the major sides involved in the Syrian inferno. At least Russia and Iran want the two extremist jihadist factions completely extinguished. However, there are more independent fighting groups and local war lords who cannot be easily distinguished and separated from the above mentioned ostracized extreme Sunni Muslim organizations. This will present an additional problem for the truce because some of them are closely related to Turkey.
The implementation difficulties of the Astana agreement are inflated by the fact that the reportedly more organized and militarily more effective side, the Kurds, were not invited to the talks. As a result, their representatives said that the Kazakh capital deliberations are not binding for them. By the same token, the Americans, who have strongly supported the Kurds up to the point of ruining their relations with Turkey, were invited to Astana but didn’t attend. All Washington did, in relation to this new peace initiative which leaves the US practically out, was a State Department flat announcement urging Russia, Turkey and Iran to “press the warring sides to observe the ceasefire and aim at a final political solution”.
Understandably, the US inaction in Syria during the past two months can be attributed to the unusual tribulations of the transition of power in the White House. It’s true that this process was anything but customary. Still, Washington under no circumstances would have left the Syria affair, to evolve or draw closer to a political solution without the American card being played. This probably means that the new Trump administration, even during the transition period, has changed the means and the targets of the US implication in this part of the world, as it has done elsewhere in the planet. Not to forget that the Americans, if they wanted, could mobilize the Kurds and make their presence very clearly felt on the ground.
The new role of the US
It may not be, then, far from the truth, that now the US has formulated a totally different new policy on Syria, regarding means and also targets. To be recalled, that the Obama administration had done everything they could to undermine the Russian role in Syria. Last March, Washington under Obama had gone as far as to bombard the Russia aligned Assad forces, the very next day the two powers had agreed on the then UN brokered ceasefire. In this way, the US ruined any possibility for a brief conclusion on the conflict.
What followed though, completely favored Russia, because her amplified military involvement proved fully effective, reviving Assad’s role and leading to the conquest of Aleppo, until then the bastion of the anti-Assad opposition. In short, the American plan to exhaust Russia’s potential in Syria and expose her hypothetical weaknesses, proved a total failure. Russia has now become the main player in the Syrian multifaceted conflict.
Russia calls the rules
Given the fact that Russia is in a much stronger position than the US in Syria, may open the way for Putin’s ‘friend’ Trump to come to a compromise, if not rapprochement, with Moscow comprising many more chapters than Syria. Trump, however, is not friendly with the rest of the world powers, like the EU and China. At the other side of the globe, the new American administration inflates their differences with Beijing. There is more to it. The Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, while answering questions at a Senate Committee hearing during his endorsement procedure, attacked China unusually hard, saying that the US will not permit to this country to seize islets on international waters in the South China Sea. Beijing swiftly answered that the US has to do nothing less than wage war to stop China from doing that.
At the same time, Tillerson is a very good friend of the Russian President Vladimir Putin and in 2013 received the medal of the ‘Order of Friendship’ from him. At that time, the then boss of Exxon-Modil, struck an agreement with Russia’s oil industry, which potentially may worth tens of billions of dollars. No need to prove that Tillerson as US Secretary of State is the man in the right position to oversee a real and frank rapprochement between the two larger nuclear powers of the world. This prospect is not shaded by trade differences as in the case of the US-China relations. What if, then, Donald Trump represents a strong US lobby which has nothing to gain from free trade with China and the rest of the world but instead eyes Russia’s mythical oil and gas reserves.
In any case, the developments in Syria will shed light on the wider geostrategic changes the Trump administration seems to plan. The problem is that these changes may prove highly dangerous and the risks of major confrontations are already present.