Few thought that, a mere month after this dangerous episode, two Russian-American agreements on Syria would ensue, establishing deconfliction between the two sides and their allied forces, and in turn helping to bring about the military defeat of Daesh. On the other hand, the emerging Russian-Turkish-Iranian entente helped bring the conflict to a halt in some areas. Despite the seeming forward movement of events, there are, however, numerous thorny issues standing in the way of a final resolution to the conflict in Syria.
A month after the conflagration over Khan Shaykhun, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to establish four “de-escalation zones” across Syria: Daraa in the south, the East Ghouta region in rural Damascus, the northern Homs pocket, and Idlib. The de-escalation deal helped reduce the level of violence. More importantly, it relieved enough troops for the Syrian government to launch a campaign — with crucial Russian support — against Daesh in the Syrian Desert, eventually reaching the outskirts of the strategic Tanf crossing on the Iraqi border, which was controlled by US-backed Syrian opposition groups and American troops. Government forces also advanced from Palmyra toward the Daesh-besieged Deir ez-Zor on the western bank of the Euphrates. To the east of the river, US-backed Kurdish forces were closing in on Daesh-controlled Raqqah. Russian and American areas of operations were getting dangerously close to each other.
At that crucial moment in July, the first meeting between Vladimir Putin and Trump took place at the G20 summit in Hamburg. The two presidents brokered a de-escalation zone in southern Syria, taking that region out of the Astana formula. More importantly, they agreed to deconflict their forces along the Euphrates, thus guaranteeing against any incidents that could have led to a wider conflict.
In the months following Hamburg, Russian-backed forces took the city of Deir ez-Zor and advanced rapidly down the western bank of the Euphrates, reaching the Iraqi border. On the other side, American-backed Kurds took Raqqah, and in turn reached all the way to Iraq. With Daesh on the verge of defeat, tensions were again on the rise between Russia and the US. Trump and Putin met for a second time at Vietnam’s Da Nang in November and renewed their agreement over Syria. Unlike Hamburg, the Da Nang communique emphasized the need for a political resolution to the Syrian conflict in accordance with the Geneva process and UN Security Council resolution 2254.
Progress in Geneva, however, remains sluggish. The recent eighth round of talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups produced no results, and it is unlikely that future rounds will come up with anything concrete. All eyes are now fixed on the Sochi conference, which will be held in February 2018. Under Russian auspices, hundreds of Syrian delegates from different political backgrounds are supposed to meet to discuss a new constitution and elections. The American administration’s stance on this endeavor remains unclear, and the question of whether Sochi would supplement or supplant the Geneva process will have to be answered in the coming year.
2017 witnessed many regional and international moves toward a final settlement, but a series of complex issues need to be solved before the long wait for peace can be declared over.
As for southern Syria, Russia and the US agreed to solidify the de-escalation zone. However, Israel maintains that the Russian-American agreement disregards its security interests. Israeli warplanes have struck targets in Syria throughout 2017 and, if it remains unchecked, such Israeli military adventurism might undermine the conflict resolution effort in 2018, especially if it leads to a wider conflagration.
On the Astana front, the positions of Russia, Turkey and Iran appear closer than ever. Nonetheless, of the four zones listed in the May agreement, only Idlib remains on the table in Astana. The southern zone is now subject to the Russian-American agreement, and separate de-escalation deals were negotiated through Russian and Egyptian efforts for East Ghouta and Homs. Idlib, nonetheless, remains a complicated issue, especially with thousands of Al-Qaeda fighters, including foreign recruits, operating there under the banner of HTS (Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Al-Nusra Front). The terms of the October deal struck in Astana over the fate of the province remain unclear. Turkish forces have already advanced and established “observation posts” in Idlib, without facing any resistance from local groups so far. The fate of the area, and of the many foreign fighters present there, remains one of the most potentially explosive issues in 2018.
Turkey has many aims for its military deployment in Idlib, and containing the Kurds of Afrin is at the top of its agenda. In 2017, the Kurds, with US help, controlled vast swathes of land in Syria. The debacle over the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan only intensified Turkish anxiety. Turkish policy toward the Kurds in Syria (and the region), and how Russia and the US react to it, is also a potential flashpoint in 2018.
For Syria, 2017 was a year of twists and turns. It witnessed the highest levels of tension, but also many regional and international moves toward a final settlement. Many complex issues, however, remain unsolved. Daesh is certainly defeated, but the root causes that led to the rise of the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq have not been properly addressed. In the vacuum left by Daesh, Kurds now control wide areas northeast of Syria, making Turkey ever restless. Putin, having declared victory over Daesh, ordered the partial withdrawal of Russian contingents from Syria. The US, to Russia’s dismay, maintains that its forces will remain in Syria until the Geneva process comes to fruition.
A lot still stands between Syrians and the peace they so anxiously desire.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.