As 2016 closed, Russia and Turkey announced that they had brokered a cease-fire with opposition groups fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The agreement would be followed by peace talks between the Damascus government and some rebel forces, with Moscow, Tehran and Ankara acting as brokers. The cease-fire has proven fragile, and has been punctuated by violations from its inception. If it does endure, however, it will have a dual significance: Not only will it have brought peace to the embattled country, but it will have done so without the involvement of the United States or the United Nations. This is the first such cease-fire struck without Washington and it could, given comments by President-elect Donald Trump on the campaign trail, signal the beginning of a new diplomatic era for the Middle East, one with a much-reduced role for the U.S.
Nearly six years of bloody fighting in Syria have resulted in more than 300,000 deaths and forced more than 11 million people to flee their homes. Dozens of rebel groups, some backed by the U.S., others supported by Sunni governments in the Persian Gulf, are fighting the Assad regime, which in turn enjoys backing from Russia and Iran. In the past, Turkey backed rebel groups, but in recent months the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been working with Russia, ostensibly on behalf of the rebels, for peace.
Erdogan’s shift reflects anger at Washington for backing Kurdish rebels in Syria that, he claims, support terrorism in his country, as well as U.S. criticism of the state of emergency that Ergodan declared in the wake of a failed coup last year. Erdogan has also calculated that Russia has the upper hand in Syria as a result of its indifference to the human costs of intervention in the war and aligning with Moscow will give Turkey more say in the final outcome in Syria. Most importantly, it will better position Erdogan to dictate terms to Kurdish rebel forces in Syria that he considers a threat to Turkey’s own sovereignty.
The cease-fire followed the seizure of Aleppo, a rebel stronghold for nearly four years, by the Syrian government (backed by Russian air power and Iranian ground forces). This defeat transformed the momentum of the conflict. After that breakthrough, Russia, Iran and Turkey reached agreement on principles for an agreement. While the terms have not yet been announced, it is alleged that the three governments agreed to create informal zones of influence in Syria, while keeping Assad as president for at least a few years.
The cease-fire includes the Syrian government and seven opposition groups. It excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State radicals and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group, al-Qaida’s Syria branch and the Nusra Front, along with forces linked to them. It is reported that the Kurdish YPG militia is also not a party to the agreement. Russia and Turkey have pledged to monitor and enforce the deal. Later in January, key parties to the conflict — the Syrian government and some rebel groups — will convene in Kazakhstan for peace talks mediated by Russia, Turkey and Iran. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the U.S. will have a seat at the table once Trump takes office, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and the U.N.
The agreement has the backing of the U.N. Security Council, which unanimously adopted a resolution last weekend supporting the deal. U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura welcomed the cease-fire and hoped it would save civilian lives, enable the delivery of aid and lead to productive peace talks.
Of course, the few weeks between now and the scheduled start of those talks could prove to be an eternity. Two previous cease-fires collapsed and this one is already under strain. There has been fighting in parts of the country, with both sides claiming the other is responsible for the violations. Rebels warned Monday that they would abandon the truce if the Damascus government was not stopped, while the Syrian government claims the areas under attack are not covered by the cease-fire.
There is also the danger of a fallout between brokers of the deal. Turkey wants all foreign forces out of Syria. That is anathema to Iran, which backs Hezbollah, a key group supporting Damascus and the government in Lebanon, where Iran also has influence. For its part, Syria is suspicious of Turkish intentions, and worries that Ankara cannot deliver some of the rebel groups it purports to speak for.
While the U.S. has applauded the agreement, noting that “any effort that stops the violence, saves lives and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome,” there is concern in Washington that the U.S. is being neutralized as a settlement is being worked out. For President-elect Trump, that may not be a problem: He has indicated that he is prepared to let Russia lead on this problem. U.S. allies in the region worry, however, that this could the first sign of U.S. disengagement more generally. Russia’s presence and influence is growing, however: In addition to this diplomatic victory, it will be expanding its naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus. A new era is dawning in the Middle East.
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