Syria: From bombardment to ceasefire and back

Personal circumstances have kept me away from this blog for almost two months and a lot has gone on while I’ve been away.

First, we saw a dramatic acceleration of Russian military activity in Syria, followed by a significant deceleration as a “cessation of hostilities” was proclaimed, starting on 27 February. To top it off we saw Putin announce the (partial) withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on 14 March.

Let’s examine each of these event in turn.

Russian intervention

The month between my previous post on 25 January and the “cessation of hostilities” saw almost 1000 civilian deaths (all figures here taken from the Violations Documentation Centre database). If we look at the Russian intervention overall (30 September 2015 to the start of the ceasefire) then what we see is a period of intense bombardment of civilian population centres (well documented in reports of attacks on hospitals and schools) accompanied by more effective targeting of opposition military forces. So the rate of killing of civilians edged up only slightly in the period, but the killing of armed opponents of the regime almost doubled. The role of air power in attacking civilian communities also grew sharply:(in the period prior to Russian intervention bombs accounted for 48% of civilian deaths, once the Russians arrived the figure rose to 65%; with Russian operations accounting for 60% of all bombing.)

The Ceasefire

Most commentaries on the ceasefire from the United Nations, western governments, and the western media, have hailed it as a major success. While it has resulted in a major reduction in the number of civilian casualties, and allowed civil groups in a whole series of towns and villages to return to the streets to call for the downfall of the regime, an inspection of the statistics tell a less uniformly optimistic picture. While civilian deaths have fallen by 60% since the ceasefire began (and deaths as a result of bombing have declined even more sharply) there are still are still running at almost 100 civilian deaths each week. Details of continuing regime attacks can be found here.

Russian Withdrawal

The announcement by Putin on 14 March that Russia was to begin a major withdrawal of its forces took the rest of the world by surprise.

While Putin accompanied the announcement with “mission accomplished” fanfare, few independent commentators took this seriously. As was widely pointed out, the Russians had managed to shore up Asad for the immediate future and strengthen his hand for the Geneva negotiations, but Russia’s prime objective for its intervention – the elimination of ISIS ­was still far from complete. Of course, in typical Putin fashion, after the announcement had been allowed to resound, the qualifications began – Russia was maintaining its airbase and core personnel in Latakia, and could resume operations on short notice; the Russian air defence system would remain in place; and Russian air support for Syrian operations against ISIS would-continue.

The question remains – why did Russia pull out so demonstratively? Was it some sort of a warning shot to the regime that if they did not fall in line with Russia’s diplomatic line, Russia could be less supportive? Perhaps, but if so it was a hollow gesture – Assad knows perfectly well that his allies cannot afford to have the regime fall militarily to anyone. Indeed, recent news has suggested that Russia may be increasing its flow of material support to the regime.

Russia’s Diplomacy

Something that has not been widely noted by Syria-watchers is the fact that Russia has been badly wrong-footed on the diplomatic front at almost every turn. As I’ve suggested previously, what Russia would like to see is a resolution (or at least winding down) of the Syrian conflict with the minimum of political change at the centre. Their strategic objective is the creation of a power-sharing government that would continue to be headed by Asad, but which would include some opposition representatives. This would have to receive some concessions to make it credible, but it would leave the basic structure of power intact. The current ceasefire is a “demonstration project” for this plan – designed to show opposition communities what life could be like if they dropped demands for Asad’s departure and went along with this sort of compromise. It seems that John Kerry, despite occasional bursts of anti-Asad rhetoric, has signed up to this approach as well.

But to implement this scheme Russia needs two things – an opposition that would be prepared to respond to these limited incentives, and a regime that would prepared to make some cosmetic (and perhaps a bit more than cosmetic) changes. Russia has failed to achieve either.

On the opposition issue, Russia had hoped to split the anti-Asad political opposition and assemble a pliable, credible opposition current that would sign up to their package. In fact, their manoeuvres had the opposite effect producing an unprecedented unification of the Syrian opposition – with the High Negotiating Committee including both the Syrian National Coalition and the bulk of the National Coordinating Committee (plus, for the first time, sections of the armed opposition). Russia has had to make do with a rump of fringe opposition groups headed by their glove puppet Qadri Jamil.

Similarly, their attempt to widen the list of “terrorist” organisations beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has drawn a blank (although that hasn’t prevented the regime form making up its own list.)

As far as the regime is concerned, they have refused to play ball, maintaining an intransigent position that is beginning to frustrate even Stefan de Mistura. In effect what we are seeing is a replay of the Geneva II negotiations – exactly what Russia and the US wanted to avoid.

The Negotiations thus far

These have been pretty much Geneva II déjà vu – the opposition puts forward wide- ranging and detailed plans; the regime simply offers a statement of abstract principles and ignores the opposition’s proposals. In an attempt to move beyond this deadlock de Mistura has published a list of what he diplomatically describes as “commonalities” – but beyond a couple of abstract points – they are nothing of the sort: they are basically opposition positions that he hopes he can get the regime to at least respond to. But I really can’t see the regime buying into this, for example:

  1. Syrians are committed to rebuilding a strong and unified national army, also through the disarmament and integration of members of armed groups supporting the transition and the new constitution. That professional army shall protect the borders and population of the State from external threats in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. The state and its reformed institutions will exercise the exclusive right of controlling weapons of war. There shall be no intervention by foreign fighters on Syrian soil.

Meanwhile the regime continues to drag its feet over the “confidence building” measures that are meant to accompany the ceasefire. It has allowed limited relief supplies into many of the besieged areas (although it continues to refuse surgical materials to enter) – but denies the UN access to Douma and Darayya –two towns in the strongly oppositional belt close to Damascus that it is intent on crushing, ceasefire or no. And repeated demands for release of detainees – which the opposition has backed up by providing detailed lists, and which de Mistura has endorsed – have been met with a stony silence.

Russia’s consolation prize

Russia has however come away from the political and diplomatic process with one consolation prize – the PYD/YPG who exercise effective control over the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. The PYD/YPG has shifted its de facto alliance from the United States to Russia, coordinating its operations with the Russian air force to seize territory, in some cases from FSA forces. (For a good account of this see Michael Karadjis’s blog post– which I agree with in the essentials (but see my comment on the post at his site). The PYD has now established a Moscow office.

As a quid pro quo for this Russia made a few positive noises using the Syrian “F” word – Federalism, although these were promptly withdrawn once the PYD started to act on these assurances. I’m inclined to speculate that Russia is here using the PYD as a stick to wave at a recalcitrant Asad – while it can’t seriously threaten to withdraw support from the regime, it can suggest that if Asad is not more cooperative, Russia would consider backing a PYD-linked “federalism” for the north of the country. However, for the time being Russia’s Syrian protégés have adopted a position indistinguishable from that of the Syrian opposition.

The Geneva process is due to resume on 11 April – but the hopes for it are no brighter than when it opened. The best that we can expect is that the ceasefire can be spun out for as long as possible to give the Syrian people some respite from the terror that they have been subjected to by the regime and that when the inevitable breakdown occurs, the Russians may not be quite as enthusiastic in their military operations as previously.


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