The false promise of de-escalation in Syria

As Syrian government troops and their Russian and Iranian backers press ahead with full-blown assaults on the rebel-held areas of Idlib, Hama and Eastern Ghouta, one Human Rights Watch expert remarked, “if this is de-escalation, then I would hate to imagine what escalation looks like”.

There are daily reports of civilian casualties. At least 200 have been killed in the Idlib pocket since the offensive started in late December. U.S. Ambassador the United Nations Nikki Haley has accused the government of carrying out chlorine gas attacks. These are densely packed areas. Hundreds of thousands of people have sought refuge in Idlib from previous bouts of fighting elsewhere in Syria. Eastern Ghouta, suburb of Damascus, is home to 400,000 people and a humanitarian disaster there is looming on the horizon.

The military onslaught has exposed the vacuousness of the Russian-led Astana peace process. Rounds of negotiations aimed at curbing hostilities and preparing the ground for a political settlement have led nowhere. There are serious questions as to whether Russia, Iran and Turkey, the three powers behind Astana, have really invested in the talks, or whether they have used them as a smokescreen while advancing their own objectives in Syria.

It is relatively easy to answer the question with regard to Iran. There is little reason to believe that Tehran, and by the same token its client, Syrian President Bashar Assad, ever took de-escalation as anything other than a expedient move to free up forces to be used in the push against Islamic State and the recapture of parts of eastern Syria. 

Now attention is shifting to the West, including areas under the sway of the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The government and its Iranian-backed allies are intent on gobbling up as much territory as possible, stopping short of a clash with the United States or Turkey.

Russia’s position is more complex. On one hand, Moscow spearheads the Astana process and has even sponsored work on a new constitution based on power sharing by Assad and his rivals. De-escalation has been central to Russian strategy. On the other hand, Moscow’s air force has spearheaded government offensives. Air strikes have increased dramatically in the wake of the shooting down of a Russian jet by rebels in the Idlib province last week. It seems that Russia is falling in line with the Syrian government and is throwing its weight behind the recapture of Idlib, the last major urban centre under the control of the anti-Assad opposition.

A more benign interpretation is that the Russians are wielding a stick in order to bring rebels to the negotiating table and make them more flexible. The much-touted Congress of Syrian National Dialogue held in Sochi on Jan. 30 turned out to be a flop. Many factions boycotted the event. That included Jaysh al-Nasr, the militia affiliated with the Free Syria Army that downed the Russian warplane. There is a fair chance that policymakers in Moscow have not altogether dropped their plans for an overarching political deal with what remains of the armed opposition. 

However, at this stage, it is becoming growingly difficult for Russia to decouple itself from Iran and Assad. Russians appears to have limited leverage over its partners’ actions, other than on purely tactical decisions. It cannot restrain Assad’s forces, let alone Iran’s proxies, and will stick with them to the bitter end. In November, Russian President Vladimir Putin was reassuring his fellow citizens and the world that Russian military operations were nearing an end. But it looks as though Russian jets are not leaving Syria anytime soon. 

 Turkey’s predicament is even more delicate. After all, it is its allies who are being routed. Yet Ankara owes Moscow for green lighting its Afrin operation and has its hands tied. It is acting in a conciliatory mode, for example assisting with the repatriation of the remains of the downed Russian pilot and paying tribute to the concept of de-escalation.  

What we have is, essentially, a repetition of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operations between August 2016 and March 2017. Then Turkey traded eastern Aleppo for Russian acquiescence of its incursion into Syria to stem the westward march of Kurdish forces. Except that the bargain then involved recognition of Turkey’s influence over Idlib where militants and civilians from Aleppo moved before its handover to Assad. The establishment of Turkish military observation points in northern Idlib, on the edge of Afrin, last January was another step in the same direction. This time around, however, Ankara might well get a worse deal.