Syria: Between the ceasefire and the US-Russian plan B


The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyzes events in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES has prepared an analysis of current developments in Syria after the declaration of ceasefire. The extensive analysis "Syria: Between the ceasefire and the US-Russian plan B" with it's most important and interesting parts is published below.




Between the ceasefire and the US-Russian plan B"


The agreement between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin reached on Saturday, 27 February 2016, brought into existence the first serious ceasefire in Syria, which does not apply to ISIL and Al-Nusra - organizations that put together oversee more than half of the territory of Syria. The agreement also does not include other terrorist groups numbering more than 25 different organizations. Simultaneously with the declaration of the ceasefire, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad scheduled regular parliamentary elections for April 13, 2016.


Under this arrangement, the Western international coalition against ISIL and Syrian and Russian aircraft continue their operations against terrorist organizations. The Western coalition will continue with the destruction of targets and infrastructure belonging to ISIL in the east of Syria (Raqa, Deir Al-Zor, parts of Aleppo, Palmyra, etc.). At the same time Russian and Syrian aircraft can easily continue their operations in the west of the country. Kurdish units control the north of Syria (Kamishli, Koban, Afrin) and are trying to take the city of Azaz, in order to integrate the entire Kurdish controlled northern Syria and at the same time to sever the link between Turkey and the territories under the control of Syrian opposition, ISIL and Al-Nusra.


A ceasefire that does not cover all actors


According to data from the end of 2015, there are 149 different organizations that are militarily active in the Syrian civil war. Activities aimed at achieving a ceasefire in Syria started on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254 from December 18, 2015, and the agreement which stemmed from it, an agreement made by the representatives of the Friends of Syria, which consists of 11 countries, including Russia and the United States, and 6 international organizations.


The greatest problem and challenge for a permanent ceasefire in Syria are the undefined boundary lines between the warring parties, and the links between these parties with regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc. After the completion of the two-week experimental ceasefire, parties in the conflict must begin negotiations in order to achieve a lasting peace.


Regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, are not satisfied with the situation on the ground. Saudi Arabia, which generously supported and financed the opposition, will not allow Assad, an exponent of Iran and Russia, to remain in power. Turkey is openly supporting some Islamist opposition groups, and is at the same time doing all it can to preclude the Kurdish party PYD, which actually controls the north of Syria, from becoming a part of the negotiating process in Geneva. On the other hand Turkey is supporting Kurdish organizations rivaling the PYD, which however do not have any weight on the ground in Syria, such as the Kurdish Islamist Front and the Kurdish National Council, which are a part of Saudi Arabia's moderate opposition to Assad. These two parties are represented in Geneva negotiating process.


Iran's activities on two fronts


Iran, which is active on two fronts, in Yemen and Syria, is supporting Saudi Arabia's opponents (the movement of the Houthis in Yemen, and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria). Iran will not allow for a solution which will include the resignation of Assad.


We must be aware that the ceasefire is not the result of an agreement between the regime and its opponents, but the result of an agreement between US and Russia. Therefore the truce was imposed on the warring factions. It can also be seen as some kind of a test of good intentions between the government and the opposition.


Russia has committed itself to a very strict policy towards the government in Damascus and the Shiite militias fighting on the side of the regime. On the other hand the US has left it to the opposition to decide upon the ceasefire by itself. In diplomatic language this message states that the opposition has the last chance for peace, and that the US has other options on the table. Americans are talking about the so called »plan B« in the event of the collapse of the ceasefire. This message tells the opposition in Syria that they can hope for a US or Turkish-Saudi military intervention to achieve that, which was not obtained in the five years of fighting.


In the relative silence of the weaponry in Syria some details about the US-Russian plan B have been leaked to the public.


US-Russian plan B


The fact that US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Saudi government are talking about plan B was also confirmed by General James G. Stavridis, former commander of NATO in Europe. In the case of violation of the ceasefire, the US land forces will intervene in Syria with the help of Saudi units from the north of the country, and Jordan from the south. At the same time security zones, along with no-flight zones will be instituted in the area. President Obama has already had discussions last week in Washington with the King of Jordan Abdullah II. American talks with Jordan were focused on identifying ways to prevent the spread of ISIL influence into southern and southwestern Syria from their bases in Palmyra.


Plan B is probably a good way to stop the waves of refugees from Syria. According to some data, more than seven million displaced persons are waiting for an opportunity to leave the country.


The Russian plan B, as presented by the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Ryabkov talks about the federalization of Syria into three federal units, namely the Alawi entity in the west of Damascus which would include the Kurds, Turcomans, Christians, Arabs and others, a Sunni entity in the east of the country, which is currently under the control of ISIL, and a Kurdish-Christian minority entity.


The Russian plan B could be interesting for the peace talks in Geneva, as a draft for the future set up of the Syrian state.


The opposition in Syria has its own model for the federalization of the country – it is looking for a model that would be a cross between Russian, Swiss, German, US or Emirate federal model.


Whatever the shortcomings and ambiguities of the ceasefire agreement - it is a lifeline for the opposition, which was on the verge of total defeat. The possible loss of half of Aleppo, which is still controlled by the opposition along with the road corridor to Turkey (65 km), would cut the opposition forces off from their logistical base in Turkey, and would also mean the loss of all territory in the central part of the country. In such a situation the opposition would not be a relevant partner for the Geneva negotiating table. The regime, which has lost more than 80,000 soldiers in the five-year war, needs a pause to consolidate their ranks. From a military perspective, both sides are exhausted and need a break before the next round, which will probably again be fought in military terms - not political.


Peace will be achieved when the regional powers of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey smooth their disputes outside the context of Syria and when the parties to the conflict recognize that they are all losing and that none of them can win.


Bombardment as a way to the lifting of  sanctions and recognition of Crimea


IFIMES International Institute believes that a solution should be sought in the triangle Riyadh - Tehran - Ankara with the participation of formations and factions on the ground and with the support of the two superpowers. Stopping the Russian bombardment is essential, as it is generating a new wave of refugees into Western Europe. Whether this military intervention has the goal of blackmailing the EU into the lifting of sanctions against Russia (under the threat of new refugee waves), and potential recognition of Crimea by the EU, is a legitimate question.


Ljubljana, March 6th, 2016

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