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Jan 24, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

The Impossible Politics of Peace in Syria

The Impossible Politics of Peace in Syria
(KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Because of the complexity of the Syrian conflict, there is little chance that peace talks in Kazakhstan will succeed.
  • Rebel groups will divide even more this year, making it difficult for them to find a unified stance on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.
  • The Syrian government is determined to keep pursuing a military solution to the conflict.
  • Meanwhile, the Islamic State, despite its weaknesses, will remain a potent threat, particularly in central and eastern Syria.

Syrian peace talks resumed Jan. 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, though it appears that the Russian and Turkish negotiators are more eager for a settlement than the Syrian ones — almost guaranteeing that the talks will not succeed. The rebellion is increasingly divided, and many important rebel factions are not represented at all in Astana. Meanwhile, the emboldened Syrian government is fixated on ending the conflict militarily, a position that Iran supports. And to further complicate matters, the Islamic State is still a considerable force to contend with on the ground, though it does not directly factor into the peace talks. 

The Rebels

2016 was a bad year for the rebel cause in Syria. Not only did the critical city of Aleppo fall, but the rebels also lost a number of important areas around the capital city of Damascus, including Daraya. Now they are facing declining foreign support at a crucial time, with infighting reaching critical levels.

Adding insult to injury, the anticipated upsurge in U.S. support, known as Plan B, did not materialize. Furthermore, the new U.S. administration is calling for greater cooperation with Russia on Syria. This means that the existing CIA support program could be reduced or ended altogether. Even Turkey, a staunch supporter of the rebel cause, has shifted its goals with Operation Euphrates Shield. Though Ankara continues to supply the rebels with weapons and equipment, it has pressured many groups away from fighting Syrian loyalists and toward Turkey's main goal of containing Kurdish expansionism by seizing Islamic State positions in northern Aleppo.

Instead of unifying the rebels behind a common cause, the defeat in Aleppo appears to have heightened infighting. Three variables are driving the trend: personality differences, disputes over foreign sponsorship and accelerated U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The first variable has worsened as loyalist forces drive rebel groups into Idlib province. As the rebel stronghold becomes overcrowded, increasingly volatile disagreements are breaking out over matters of governance and control. As much as the rebels are being concentrated, differences over the question of foreign sponsorship are pulling them apart. Some groups, particularly those with the closest ties to Turkey, have come under increasing criticism from other, more extreme groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham over their commitments to Operation Euphrates Shield. For instance, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other like-minded groups claim that rebel contributions to Turkey's operations in northern Aleppo province undermined the battle for Aleppo city. Finally, the accelerated pace of U.S. strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has killed hundreds of fighters over the past few months, angering the organization and its allies. The strikes have lowered the group's tolerance toward any rebel groups with U.S. ties, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has launched a number of raids and arrests against U.S.-backed groups.

The most important fissure on the rebel landscape is between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, two of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria. Last week, the conflict between the two turned into an outright battle, leading members of each group to start defecting to the other. These divisions are the greatest impediment to success in Astana. Fewer rebel groups have agreed to attend these talks than attended the last, and those that have elected to participate are less able to voice a unified position.

The Loyalists

Building on their 2016 success, loyalist forces are eager to continue pursuing their military campaign to wrest territory back from the rebels and the Islamic State. This course of action, however, is not completely straightforward. For instance, loyalist success on the battlefield is predicated on continued foreign support, particularly from Iran and Russia. Though Iran remains an eager ally of the Syrian government, along with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Russia's continued support is less certain. Unlike Tehran, Moscow is far less enthusiastic about pursuing a long-term and costly military effort in hopes of retaking all of Syria and is increasingly looking for a negotiated end to the conflict beneficial to its interests.

Unwilling to break with Russia, the Syrian government has agreed to participate in the Astana talks. It is clear, however, that Damascus has no intention of giving up its ambitious military goals in Syria. It has already been portraying the talks as a means by which to disarm the rebels. In the meantime, it has continued to launch offensives at rebel areas that it claims are excluded from the cease-fire because of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham's presence there.

In fact, in the short term, the cease-fire and the Astana negotiations could benefit Damascus. Not only would the talks further encourage rebel distrust and infighting, but they could also provide an opportunity for the loyalists to turn their attention toward the growing threat from the Islamic State in the east, where the extremist group has increasingly focused its effort in Homs and Deir el-Zour provinces. In the long term, however, the Syrian government has no intention of making significant concessions to the rebels and intends to build on its current battlefield advantage as long as its foreign support, particularly Iranian, remains strong.

The Islamic State

Going into 2017, the Islamic State finds itself under tremendous pressure in both Syria and Iraq. Although the group inflicted heavy casualties on Iraqi forces engaged in the battle to retake Mosul, Baghdad has nevertheless made steady progress, finally securing the east bank of the city. Pockets of Islamic State resistance in Mosul will continue, but the city is almost certain to be captured by the Iraqi government this year.

In northern Syria, the Islamic State faces offensives on either side of the Euphrates River. Turkish-backed rebel forces have driven Islamic State fighters from most of northern Aleppo province over the past few months and are now attempting to capture the city of al-Bab, despite a fierce Islamic State defense. On the east bank of the river, the Syrian Democratic Forces are steadily advancing on Raqqa and have already reached the Tabqa Dam west of the city. Both in al-Bab and around Raqqa, Islamic State resistance is greatly undermined by persistent coalition and Turkish airstrikes that make copious use of deadly precision-guided munitions.

Despite the multiple offensives against it, the Islamic State is unwilling to maintain a purely defensive stance. Defensive battles cannot provide the extremist group with the stunning propaganda victories it relies on to bolster its image, enhance recruitment, and capture valuable heavy weaponry and equipment (of which it has no supply source except battlefield seizures). To that end, the Islamic State has and will continue to shift the focus of its offensive operations toward Syrian loyalist regions, one of the last areas where it can secure operational success.

The Islamic State has a significantly better chance of prevailing against the poorly led and overstretched loyalist forces and can also capture significant quantities of weaponry from the well-equipped Syrian army. Attacking loyalist positions in central and eastern Syria also makes geographical sense, since it progresses the group's goal of clearing a space in eastern Syria, a region that would be difficult for the Turkish-backed rebels or the Syrian Democratic Forces to penetrate.

The Islamic State launched a significant offensive Jan. 14 aimed at seizing remaining Syrian loyalist positions in and around the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria. The offensive has already made significant progress. By seizing a key supply road and dividing loyalist positions, the Islamic State was able to isolate the region's principal air base from the rest of the Syrian army pocket. The Islamic State's advances make any aerial resupply effort — already precarious and limited — far more difficult. By successfully seizing a number of elevated positions overlooking the remaining loyalist positions, they now literally hold the high ground. The collapse of the loyalist pocket would be a significant blow to the Syrian government, dealing a particularly bad hit to the "Army in all corners" strategy and undermining Syrian President Bashar al Assad's ambition of taking back all of Syria.

A status check of the Syrian conflict highlights the significant impediments to any negotiated solution that might be mooted at Astana. The rebels are as fractious as ever, the loyalists are keen on pursuing their military campaign, and the Islamic State is committed to enhancing its offensive operations in central and eastern Syria. Given Russia's determination to exit the conflict and Turkey's increasingly accommodative stance toward al Assad, some minor agreements are within reach, but the Syrian conflict will not end in 2017.

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