After six years of conflict it seems that the only consistent thing in this war is its unpredictability. It’s begun to feel like the Syrian people have become like the Palestinians with endless conferences, initiatives, and agreements to establish an ever elusive peace and with each new UN secretary general eagerly believing that he can be the one to preside over this diplomatic victory. Even as a fanatical political observer I’ve frankly lost count, we are now at Geneva 5 or 6 and Astana 4 I think and with each instalment the hopes of the Syrian people decrease as they observe the very sources of their misery pretend that they have their best interests at heart and are honest brokers for peace.
The latest episode is Astana 4 and it comes with the backdrop of US airstrikes on the Syrian regime and accusations of chemical weapons use, and the continued production of these banned substances. Leading up to Astana 4 there was an unprecedented level of pressure building on not only the Syrian regime but also the Russian government with the former being threatened with further military action from the US, France, Israel, Britain, and Turkey. The Trump administration also neatly tied in Iran’s role in the conflict detailing a long list of Iranian misdemeanors in the region and calling for Iran and Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria.
The mounting rhetoric in combination with the impending Raqqa operation as a pretext for further intervention was swinging the momentum back in the US’s favour after it was handed to the Russians by the indecisive policies of the Obama administration. Many were waiting to see what would be Putin’s next move, and there you have it. On a vague document passed around the conference hall in Astana we witness Putin’s attempt to wrestle back the initiative and maintain control politically, diplomatically and militarily in the Syrian arena. What has occurred is simply the Russians implementing exactly the same plan the Americans wanted to implement but with them controlling the process to exclude the Americans.
Just a few months ago Rex Tillerson the US secretary of state announce their desire to establish ‘zones of stability’ and now the Russians give us ‘de-escalation zones’, where apparently even US planes are excluded from operating within its boundaries. The last US secretary of state John Kerry wanted to ground the Syrian regimes air force, allow access for humanitarian aid, allow the return of displaced people, and freeze all hostile action and this was all rejected by his counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Now we see this all being offered on a plate, but all is not as it seems. Politically and diplomatically the Astana agreement has massively diverted attention away from the Syrian regimes war crimes in Khan Shaykhoun and elsewhere and relieved pressure from Russia as it was being accused of being complicit in these crimes and unconditionally supporting a murderous dictator.
It also makes building any case for western intervention much more difficult as it reduces the urgency to intervene because currently there are no airstrikes and relative peace is ensuing. It also gives the appearance that the peace process is making progress and to disturb this would seem contradictory to previous calls to end the bloodshed. Militarily it allows the Syrian regime, the Russian army, Hezbollah, and Iranian militias to mass their forces to push east into ISIS territory with the goal of seizing the province of Deir Zour whilst the US forces are preoccupied with the upcoming Raqqa operation. This will deny these areas to the US and her allies and secure Syria’s oilfields for the regime. It will also secure the Iraqi border region for Iran and help to open a long desired land corridor from Iran to Iraq to Syria and on to Lebanon for supplying their proxy Hezbollah with weapons for its conflict with Israel.
This offensive into the East can only be made possible by freezing the rest of Syria’s fronts as the Syrian regime’s critical vulnerability is manpower and has repeatedly shown the inability to sustain offensive/defensive operations on multiple fronts. Within the first few hours of this new ceasefire violations were being reported from Hama, Homs, Damascus, and Dara. It is either that the Russian government has completely lost control over the Syrian regime or they never intended to restrain their partner in crime in the first place. The majority of Syrians believe the latter and view this whole charade as just another cruel game being played to stop their revolution and block their aspirations for freedom and a better life.
How the opposition politically and militarily reacts to this latest development is crucial. The goals of the revolution are in mortal danger, the freedom we most energetically called for is about to be snatched away from in front of our eyes. In reality even those who claimed to be friends of our revolution endeavour to replace Bashar with another Bashar. They seek a cosmetic change and not a real one. So the old order remains in place, the people are pacified, and things go on as normal. If the armed revolutionary forces continue to be reactionary in regards to events on the ground and sit back while the regime and her allies take the eastern regions they would have brought disaster upon themselves. This is primarily because the freed territories would have not expanded due to the confinements emplaced upon them by the ‘de-escalation zones’. Creating this buffer between our stronghold of Idlib and the regimes territory is vital for its defence, and continuing offensive operations on multiple fronts is important to spread out the regime’s forces and keep them off balance.
Without this proactive strategy the regime will be able to concentrate their forces for a final assault on the province of Idlib to deal a death blow to the Syrian revolution. What remains to be seen is how the Trump administration reacts to the latest curve ball thrown by Putin. Preceding the Astana agreement was almost daily condemnation of Iran’s activities in the region and Israel calling for all Iranian military presence to be removed from Syria. This confrontation with Iran’s presence in Syria could come in conjunction with or after the Raqqa operation and would have of course a massive impact on the Syrian regimes ground forces who are now dominated by Iranian backed Shiite militias.
Sadly it seems that the Astana agreement is simply another weapon in Russia’s arsenal to scupper western backed peace initiatives, extend the life support for a doomed regime, and to capitalize on military inactivity to increase the Syrian government’s territorial gains. We’ve been here before and with every Russian backed peace deal the opposition ends up losing some new piece of territory either through outright victory or through forced displacement. The opposition are the only ones playing by the rules but keep losing due to this naive approach we can only hope that this time round they’ve learned their lesson and understand how the game is played.
By Ibrahim Fadi