Last week’s summit in the Russian town of Sochi between the Russian, Iranian and Turkish leaders is being billed as a potential breakthrough in the quest to bring peace to Syria. Sochi is the latest example of Russian diplomatic initiative in the midst of broader international inertia.
Indeed, Sochi unfolded at a time of heightened diplomatic uncertainty regarding multiple layers of the Syria peace process. The Geneva track is rambled on aimlessly as a largely defeated Syrian opposition clings on to unrealistic goals.
In the midst of floundering international efforts to give the Geneva track real teeth, the Sochi summit gives Russia a clear diplomatic and political advantage. The Russian intervention in the peace process is not dissimilar to Russia’s fateful military intervention in the conflict back in September 2015.
Furthermore, the latest Russian initiative places the United States in an even more precarious position in Syria, further undermining America’s ability to shape the peace in Syria. Additionally, by apparently separating Turkey from the Western alliance, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, has taken a major step in managing conflict resolution on Russian terms.
However, the road ahead is not straightforward as the three powers meeting in Sochi do not have a clear roadmap for a lasting peace in Syria. In fact, they have competing strategic and operational interests and imperatives in Syria which makes sustainable conflict resolution difficult to achieve.
The Sochi summit coincided with a renewed Russian bombing campaign in eastern Syria, primarily designed to give the Syrian government an advantage over other players, notably the US-supported Kurdish factions, in that heavily contested part of the country.
Despite concerted US efforts to block the Syrian government from emerging as the dominant force in the east, the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias have been able to establish control over important sectors in the region, notably sensitive points along the border with Iraq.
The bombing campaign in the east coincided with a renewed Syrian-Russian offensive against the last rebel holdouts in Eastern Ghouta. The sudden outbreak of heavy fighting in Eastern Ghouta (apparently sparked by a surprise attack on an army base by a jihadist faction) is a clear violation of the terms of the “de-escalation” zones, thus underscoring the fragility of these agreements.
The expected eventual collapse of rebel resistance in Eastern Ghouta will land yet another blow to the wider Syrian opposition and further weaken their hand in negotiations. Indeed, successive rebel defeats in the past two years have rendered a genuine negotiation process unviable as the Damascus government has little to no incentive to offer concessions to its enemies.
Although there is little organic links between the armed rebel factions on the ground and the exiled political opposition – with many rebel factions openly denouncing the opposition – nonetheless the battlefield performance of the rebels has a major impact on the morale and credibility of the opposition.
Successive rebel defeats over a sustained period, and in particular the grievous loss symbolised by the retaking of Aleppo last December, have made it all but impossible for the opposition umbrella body, the so-called High Negotiations Committee (HNC), to negotiate on an even remotely equal footing with the Syrian government.
In fact, battlefield defeats have intensified divisions in the opposition camp, as demonstrated by the abrupt resignation of the Saudi-backed HNC chief Riad Hijab two days before the opposition’s latest meeting in a luxury Riyadh hotel last Wednesday. The discord within the HNC, and the broader opposition structures that support it, makes the prospect of meaningful negotiations with the Damascus government even more remote.
The Syrian War has been the most complex of recent times, as demonstrated by multiple layers of local, national, regional and international conflicts unfolding on Syrian territory. This has been above all a proxy war with regional and global powers competing to shape the conflict with a view to maximising their respective influence both within Syria and the region more broadly.
In keeping with the war’s complex and multi-faceted nature, it is not surprising that conflict resolution will be equally complex and multi-layered. The Geneva track has run in parallel with the Astana track, with the latter focussed on technical issues related to the battlefields whilst the former focusses on achieving a political breakthrough.
To date, the Astana track has been much more successful for two reasons. First it eliminates the opposition’s intermediary role by bringing opposition groups face-to-face with the government. Second, the Astana track is primarily underwritten by Russia, Iran and Turkey, three powers with the greatest influence on both the Damascus government and the key opposition factions. The result has been the creation of four “de-escalation” zones in critical areas, which despite their fragility have succeeded in reducing the fighting.
It is on the back of Astana’s relative success that Russia, Iran and Turkey are striving to impose their will on the political track by effectively removing the Western powers from the equation. However, despite the confidence projected in Sochi, this tri-party plan is vulnerable to multiple internal and external pressures.
On the external front, it is highly unlikely that the Western powers, and the United States in particular, will entirely abandon their positions in Syria. Indeed, the US has up to 2,000 avowed troops on Syrian soil and despite reports that Washington is cutting off the supply of arms to the Kurds, American military advisors are set to continue their engagement with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
In terms of internal pressure, the weakest link of the Sochi summit is Turkey, whose cooperation with Russia and Iran is primarily driven by fears of the emergence of a Kurdish proto-state in the eastern and northern regions of Syria.
Furthermore, Turkey continues to support opposition factions north of Aleppo (near the border with Turkey) thus preventing the Syrian army and its allies from completing their conquest of the area. The Turkish position stands in stark contrast to the Russian and Iranian ones, which to varying degrees seek to impose a decisive defeat on the opposition groups.
Whilst Sochi and the proposed peace “congress” are important steps toward conflict resolution, they cannot be regarded as a breakthrough. The viability of this “congress” and the resulting progress, rest in large part on the extent to which the three powers can align their strategic, tactical and operational postures on all the components of the Syrian conflict. Moreover, Russia, Iran and Turkey need to work closely together for a sufficiently long period in order to continually outmanoeuvre the United States.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.