WASHINGTON: Almost six months since their summer meeting to achieve closer ties, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan took another step toward that goal by brokering a new cease-fire deal in Syria, to be followed by political talks to try to resolve the six-year-long conflict.
The deal — announced simultaneously by the governments of Turkey, Syria and Russia — is a seven-point package aimed at a nationwide cease-fire set to begin at midnight Friday, and offers a path to peace talks a month later.
The draft, as leaked by Turkish broadcaster TRT, excludes UN-designated terrorist groups Daesh and Al-Nusra Front (now Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham) from the cease-fire, and assigns Moscow and Ankara the roles of guarantors of the deal. In that role, Russia and Turkey are to make sure the Syrian regime and the rebels adhere to their parts of the deal, and agree to delivering humanitarian aid to all besieged areas.
It is also, according to the deal, up to Russia and Turkey to “present an appropriate mechanism to monitor the cease-fire based on UN frameworks after the parties agree to these terms.” Political negotiations are scheduled for Jan. 29 in Kazakhstan, with regional and international participation.
Can Russia, Turkey deliver?
The new cease-fire is similar in content and objectives to previous cease-fires brokered by the US or UN in the last five years, only to fail due to violations and lack of enforcement.
This attempt by Russia and Turkey could be different, however, due to the fact that both Moscow and Ankara “have the ability to deliver the regime and many rebel groups in the north, respectively” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow and expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Russia announced that seven rebel groups have signed on to the deal, while both the Syrian regime and the political opposition coalition welcomed the agreement.
Tabler told Arab News that the new cease-fire “has been on the cards for a while following Russian-Turkish understanding last August,” and that Moscow’s plan “was to help the regime take Aleppo and then to go into talks.” Syrian President Bashar Assad has described his Aleppo victory as a “turning point” in the conflict.
This agreement is also different in that it sidelines the US and shifts geopolitical leverage and weight in the Syrian conflict toward the East, with Turkey and Russia as main sponsors, and Astana (instead of Geneva) as a host for the future talks. These talks will reportedly involve Egypt, Iran, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia, along with representatives from both the regime and the opposition.
Sidelining the US is a result of “Russia not wanting to deal with an (Obama) administration that couldn’t ‘de-marble’ rebels” and further separate them along the lines of moderates and extremists, said Tabler.
“The US used a diplomatic dance in the last year to get humanitarian relief and a cease-fire for targeting terrorist groups, but it didn’t work, so Russia went to Turkey in its hour of need after the (failed) July coup, and at a moment when they became enraged at the US.”
While both Russia and Turkey carry plenty of weight and leverage in the Syrian conflict, the new cease-fire deal comes with many loopholes that could derail its implementation, says Aaron Stein, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“There are a lot of loopholes that Russia can exploit, which makes it too early to tell if this attempt will be more successful than other attempts,” Stein told Arab News. Major doubts involve the implementation of the agreement, “for lacking an enforcement mechanism and isolating Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, which is the backbone of the Idlib insurgency. The task of separating it from other rebel groups will be extremely difficult.”
In this context, “Russia is succeeding in shaping the insurgency to allow for expanded military operations in Idlib” after Aleppo. Another hiccup in the deal, said Stein, is it does not address the main Kurdish groups, including the YPG and PYD, which control territory in Syria.
This gives the advantage to Russia, he said, because “it will never abandon the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) card, and will have a wonderful tool to drive a wedge between the US and Turkey, two NATO allies.”
Tabler and Stein agree that the cease-fire gives Russia and Turkey an upper hand in steering the Syrian conflict, although the messy ground dynamics of the war and its many actors make a settlement in the short-term very unlikely.