In 2017, this trend was only reinforced. In the past months, the Syrian government has been able to regain vast swaths of territory from Daesh with Russian backing, reaching all the way to the Iraqi border.
Several political agreements ensued between the US and Russia on one hand, and Russia, Turkey and Iran on the other, in addition to several understandings reached between Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which solidified the diplomatic mechanisms — whether Geneva or Astana — working toward a final resolution of the conflict.
Moscow will have to maneuver very carefully to keep the Sochi conference, the Astana process and the Trump-Putin agreements afloat in the coming months.
Despite the defeat of Daesh and the seeming diplomatic progress between concerned international and regional powers, there are several unresolved issues threatening to undo what has been already achieved.
As the year draws to a close, the Geneva political process seems to be in tatters. The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has repeatedly asserted that political talks in Geneva, which recently concluded their eighth round, are the only viable mechanism for bringing about a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. But Russia announced that it will be holding a conference in Sochi next month, which will bring together some 2,000 representatives of the Syrian people.
Moscow has not clarified whether Sochi is intended to replace Geneva or merely supplement it. The conference agenda and decision-making process, apart from the general theme of constitutional reform, remains unclear. The Syrian government has openly favored Sochi at the expense of the sluggish Geneva. The Syrian opposition’s position on the matter is rather confused.
Factions of the opposition closer to Turkey, which attended the Astana meetings, have agreed to participate in the conference. The Riyadh-based opposition negotiating delegation is yet to decide its final position. The US, which has thrown its lot completely behind the Geneva process, is also yet to take a stance regarding Sochi. So whether Sochi will be able to reach tangible and implementable results remains an open question.
The UN and the Trump administration are reluctant to give up on Geneva. Russia has so far sought to keep both the US and the UN on board when it comes to the political process. Sochi could either reinforce this effort or reverse it significantly.
While negotiations in Geneva ground to a halt, battles on the edges of Idlib are raging. In October, Russia, Turkey and Iran gathered in Astana and reached an agreement to send “military observers” to monitor the “de-escalation zone” in the province. But media reports suggest that the true agenda agreed to in Astana is to eliminate Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (JFS, formerly Al-Nusra Front) and delineate areas of control in Idlib between the interested powers.
Turkey has already deployed hundreds of soldiers to the province without facing any resistance. Syrian forces, with Russian support, began a slow but adamant offensive against JFS positions in southern Idlib, amid fierce fighting. The situation in the province will reach boiling point in 2018. If pressed hard, JFS, with thousands of zealous extremists, will not go down without a bloody fight.
Another possible scenario is for the group to splinter, with a more moderate local faction joining other Islamist rebels in taking down foreign fighters and the radical faction. This scenario entails grave consequences for the local population, for there are thousands of foreign fighters who will not give up easily.
But if by some miracle JFS is swiftly routed, what will become of those foreign fighters? Will they return to their home countries? Turkey will want them out of its territory as quickly as possible. This international connection will lead to extensive diplomatic maneuvering around Idlib in 2018.
Another thorny issue between regional and international powers in 2018 is the complex Kurdish question, now tied to the American military presence in northeastern Syria. With Daesh nearly completely defeated, the US has lost the prime argument for legitimizing its military presence in Syria, located in the Kurdish-controlled northeast. The terrorist organization has collapsed, and its remaining fragments are now dispersed in isolated pockets in the Syrian and Iraqi deserts.
Russia is pressing the issue hard, demanding that the US withdraw its troops. Turkey, disgruntled by US support to the Kurds, has made similar demands. But the US is unlikely to withdraw from Syria and give up all leverage in the country so easily.
Its defense secretary has clearly said the Pentagon will not withdraw troops until the Geneva political process comes to fruition. Any conflagration over this issue might prevent the renewal of Russian-American understandings in Syria, which could entail unfavorable consequences for the conflict-resolution effort.
Furthermore, as American policy in the region is geared more toward checking what the US sees as expanding Iranian influence, will the Trump administration acquiesce to any conflict-resolution effort born out of the Astana process? And if President Donald Trump pursues an aggressive agenda in Syria (and Iraq), would the Astana powers respond collectively?
Away from the battlefield, Syria today, after seven years of conflict, faces monumental economic challenges. Many cities have suffered terrible destruction, and there are millions of Syrian refugees scattered in neighboring countries and in safer areas in Syria. All eyes are now on the reconstruction of the country, the cost of which is estimated at more than $200 billion. But this economic endeavor is entangled in diplomatic machinations.
The US and some European countries have clearly said reconstruction funds will be withheld until a “political transition” takes place in Syria. American and European sanctions still hinder a return to economic normalcy in the country. Russia risks losing the peace after putting so much effort in winning the war.
Economic viability is necessary for a lasting peace, so this issue will loom large over Moscow’s diplomatic efforts, especially in its dealings with the EU and the US, as the latter intends to use economic and financial sanctions already in place to gain leverage over the political process.
The coming months will be the ultimate test for Russia’s diplomatic prowess. Moscow has weaved a web of agreements with regional and international powers involved in Syria, despite their often conflicting interests. Russia will have to maneuver very carefully to keep the Sochi conference, the Astana process and the Trump-Putin agreements afloat.
Whether the US, regional powers and local players will help, sabotage or stand neutral to the Russian effort will play a key role in deciding the fate of Moscow’s grand diplomatic game in Syria.
• 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.