By Samuel Ramani
On Jan. 30, the Sochi talks on Syria’s political future came to a frustrating conclusion. Even though Russian policymakers were initially optimistic that the Sochi framework would promote dialogue between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s supporters and Syrian opposition factions, both the Sunni opposition and the Kurdish nationalist forces boycotted the talks.
As the Sochi talks broke down just weeks after both the Geneva and Astana processes failed to ease tensions between the conflicting parties in Syria, prospects for the swift implementation of a Syrian peace settlement appear remote. This grim assessment is substantiated by the unwillingness of both pro-Assad and pro-opposition factions to accept a military de-escalation, and the plethora of competing interests within these coalitions that hinder the development of a viable peace deal.
Although the formal establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria in Sept. 2017 gained broad international support, actors on both sides of the conflict have violated these agreements to combat perceived security threats. In recent weeks, Russia and Iran have intensified their attacks on opposition targets in Idlib, and have justified these military activities by claiming that a genuine de-escalation of the Syrian conflict can only be achieved once Jabhat al-Nusra is vanquished.
Some Kurdish factions, like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Unit (YPG) militias, have hindered international efforts to create a de-escalation zone in Syria’s northern region of Afrin. These obstructionist policies caused the Turkish military to intervene in Afrin to secure Turkey’s border with Syria. To further complicate matters, leading Syrian opposition factions have refused to accept a political settlement that includes Assad, and have attempted to preserve their remaining territorial holdings through the use of military force.
Even if both pro-Assad and pro-opposition factions eventually conclude that their goals cannot be achieved through military force alone and agree to a cease-fire, competing interests within these factions will likely stymie the implementation of a workable Syrian peace settlement. Within the pro-Assad bloc, Russian and Iranian policymakers disagree on what Syria’s post-civil war political system should look like. Russia wants to establish a federal system that recognizes Assad’s control over Syria’s largest
Amongst anti-Assad actors, there are similar disagreements on the ideal power balance within a reconstructed Syrian state. Even though the United States has periodically acquiesced to Assad playing a role in the peace process, Washington views Assad as an Iranian proxy and will likely continue to undertake military actions to prevent Assad from recapturing additional Syrian territory. Turkey shares Washington’s perspective on Assad’s
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is also unlikely to present a united front during a Syrian peace settlement. The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) pro-secular orientation could cause it to oppose a political settlement that cedes substantial political authority to Syrian Muslim Brotherhood factions. As Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to support Assad’s overthrow through military means, they are unlikely to participate in peace talks that include Assad. If Riyadh and Doha abstain from the arbitration process, many Sunni Islamist factions could boycott the peace settlement and attempt to derail its implementation through the use of political violence.
The implausibility of a peace settlement that sufficiently accommodates the competing interests of all major stakeholders in the Syrian conflict ensures that the most likely long-term outcome in Syria is the establishment of a frozen conflict. This scenario would give Assad political hegemony over the majority of Syrian territory, and convert the Syrian civil war into a lower-intensity conflict with more sporadic violence. Yet Assad’s actual political power would be limited, as he would have to constantly defend his authority against Sunni insurgents that aim to weaken his hold on power and Kurdish nationalists seeking to secede from a fragile Syrian state.
The establishment of a frozen conflict in Syria will influence the Middle East geopolitical environment in three main ways. First, Russia will emerge as the chief guarantor of the Syrian state’s stability and unity. A frozen conflict scenario would safeguard Russia’s naval base in Tartus and air base in Khmeimim, giving Moscow considerable military resources to project power in Syria. If popular unrest were to break out in Syria, Russia would likely utilize its military presence to strengthen Assad’s position, while using diplomacy to prevent the re-escalation of the Syrian conflict into a full-blown civil war. Moscow has been able to maintain this delicate balance in other frozen conflict zones -- like Nagorno-Karabakh and Eastern Ukraine -- and it is well-equipped to achieve a similar outcome in Syria.
Second, a frozen conflict is likely to make Syria a proxy in the Saudi Arabia-Iran struggle for regional dominance. As Riyadh remains staunchly opposed to Assad’s retention of power, Saudi Arabia could provide financial support for Sunni opposition factions in Syria who reject Assad’s legitimacy and disdain Iran’s hegemony over Syria’s political system. These hardline opposition factions could use Saudi financial support to instigate an insurgency in the regions held by the Assad regime.
If Assad struggles to unilaterally contain sectarian violence in Syria, Iran is likely to engage in a targeted military intervention on behalf of Damascus. As an Iranian intervention to support Assad would drain Tehran of critical military resources and potentially provoke unrest from isolationists at home, Saudi Arabia would exploit Assad’s fragile hold on power to weaken Iran and challenge Tehran’s influence over other Middle East states.
Third, implementing a peace settlement that gives Syria’s Kurdish territories de facto autonomy without de jure recognition could create a permanent state of instability on Syria’s northern border with Turkey. To protect this volatile frontier, the Turkish military might need to engage in periodic military interventions in Syria that resemble
Even though the international community has launched numerous peace processes aimed at bringing rival Syrian factions to the bargaining table and achieving a durable political settlement, the unwillingness of both sides to de-escalate their military campaigns and competing interests between rival international actors have stymied these efforts. As the establishment of an international consensus on what a reconstructed Syria should look like appears increasingly unlikely to occur, the Syrian civil war is poised to transition into a frozen conflict. This trajectory will ensure that Syria remains a fragile state and nexus of instability in the Middle East for years to come.