Hopes of peace in Syria

Hopes of peace in Syria

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A Syrian army soldier walks in the town of Morek, Hama district, Syria, August 24, 2019. (Reuters)

In the past week, reports from different sources have predicted two imminent attacks by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies — one, the long-awaited assault on Idlib; the other, an attack on Daesh elements in the eastern desert around Deir Ezzor.
Preparations for the attack on Idlib have been taking place for more than a month. The strongest signal came on Oct. 18 when Turkish troops evacuated the Morek observation post, their largest base in the region. The Morek withdrawal was, perhaps, the result of a Russian-Turkish bargain allowing Turkey to establish itself in other areas, such as Tell Rifaat, Manbij and Ain Issa.
Since early November, Russian and Syrian aircraft have been bombing Idlib province. A local human rights group has said that during October and early November, over 300 ground targets were hit in the region, causing about 25 casualties.
While Russia and the Syrian government are focused on Idlib, Turkey has been busy softening up territories in the northeast. In October, its aircraft bombed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions at Manbij and Ain Issa in what were clearly preparatory strikes to take control of the entire strip along the Syria-Turkey border.
On Oct. 8, the US delivered a reminder that it is still also a player in Syria by criticizing Turkey’s military forays in the region, warning that Ankara’s offensive in northeast Syria undermines the fight against Daesh, endangers civilians, threatens regional peace and security, and even poses a threat to US security and foreign policy. The White House statement extended the national emergency beyond Oct. 14.
This statement failed to recall that it was US President Donald Trump who, in October 2019, ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the Turkey-Syria border and allowed Turkish forces to replace them — an act widely seen by the Kurds and several US officials as a betrayal of the SDF, which had fought resolutely against Daesh and helped end the extremist group’s grip on Syrian territory. Turkey, in the event, has chosen to ignore the latest US statement and continued its lethal bombings in the region.
A new front seems to be opening for Russian and Syrian government attention in the Deir Ezzor area, the scene of renewed violence by remnants of Daesh. There have been regular reports that militants, organized in small cells, have been carrying out attacks across eastern Syria, and in the past two years may have killed more than 500 people, mainly SDF fighters but also about 200 civilians.
Russia and the Syrian government have a small presence in the area and are believed to be preparing to flush out these extremist fighters through a ground campaign, backed by air support.
After nine years of war, the presidential transition in Washington has provided the principal players in Syria with a fresh opportunity to reflect on what new approaches they could consider in the Biden era. Aaron Stein, in a recent paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted that the US “has no strategy in Syria” and recommended that it withdraw its forces, following arrangements with Russia to safeguard Kurdish interests.
Russia and Turkey have worked together in Syria as part of the Astana peace process, and have managed to build substantial bilateral ties. While Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” dreams could encourage President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to retain a military presence at Idlib and in the northeast, this is unlikely to be sustainable in the face of opposition from the Syrian government, Iran and Russia, which will insist on Idlib and nearby areas being cleansed of extremist elements, through military means if necessary.

After long years of fratricidal conflict in Syria, the new year offers hopes of peace in that ravaged land.

Talmiz Ahmad

That leaves the question of the Kurds in the northeast, and, indeed, across the entire Syria-Turkey border, where Kurdish leaders had envisioned their Rojava (“homeland”) in the early years of the Syrian conflict. This dream died with the Turkish military incursions into Syria — Euphrates Shield (2016), Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019) — that gave Ankara control over chunks of Syrian territory up to a depth of 40 km or more.
As a political process promoted by the UN and backed by Russia, the EU and the Arab states gains momentum, continued Turkish occupation of Syrian territory will be unacceptable to the Syrian government and its partners Russia and Iran. Here, diplomacy will need to take the lead. This will be best achieved by ensuring Turkish security from Kurdish attacks, possibly with Russian or even UN patrols along the border. The Kurds will also find that their interests are best served by a united Syrian state, albeit one that grants them a degree of autonomy.
After long years of fratricidal conflict in Syria, the new year offers hopes of peace in that ravaged land.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.
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