Why Syria’s Future Can Only be Secured by a Multinational Stabilisation Force
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The UN Security Council after a vote to approve a Russian-Turkish peace plan for Syria, 31 December 2016.
Posted on: 11th January 2017
"Everything" is on the table in upcoming peace negotiations, says the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in an apparent attempt to send a positive signal both to the West and to his Russian sponsors.
This is Assad’s first interview with foreign media since the regime’s capture of rebel-held East Aleppo in December. Following that battle, Arab media reported that Assad was prevented from travelling to Aleppo to declare victory at President Putin’s request. Putin reportedly asked that Assad should not take any military or political steps regarding the conflict without Moscow’s “green light”.
The planned negotiations in Astana are part of a Syrian ceasefire negotiated by Russian, Turkey and Iran in the last weeks of 2016. While the ceasefire is officially holding, continued clashes in the Damascus suburb of Wadi Barada, led by the Iranian proxy Hizbullah, have caused several rebel groups to announce the suspension of their participation.
Assad’s fate is a core element in resolving the Syrian conflict. A December 2015 study by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (CRG) showed that 90 per cent of rebel groups held his removal as a primary goal. Yet here, the different agendas of Assad’s sponsors, Russia and Iran, become visible, reflected in Russia’s inability to secure Iranian-backed militias’ support for the ceasefire.
The Moscow declaration of the ceasefire suggests that Assad should remain part of a transitional arrangement, necessary in the fight against extremism. But keeping Assad won’t bring about the peace Syria needs. As long as he is in power, rebel groups will rally in Syria to fight the ‘tyrant.’ Jihadis are drawn to conflict hubs, and they will continue to flock to Syria. Furthermore, their presence will only mean more Shia foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will pour in with Iranian sponsorship to fight under the banner of “protecting shrines,” alongside Hizbullah.
Moscow is aware that in order to achieve a lasting settlement, a full nation-wide ceasefire must be enforced: strong enough and long enough that substantive talks can take place. It must be enforced against every party to the conflict, both pro and anti-regime. Given the differing visions for the future of Syria held by Russia, Turkey and Iran, for the ceasefire’s sponsors to maintain their unity in supporting it, it must not presuppose any particular outcome to the negotiations.
Guaranteeing that ceasefire won’t be easy; it’s why the proposals for no fly zones were never enough. We need a complete ceasefire, in the air and on the ground, that ensures Jihadis and non-state actors aren’t able to capitalise on the vacated space.
For this to happen we need a joint ‘Stabilisation and Implementation Force’ operating as external peacekeepers.
Crucially, for such a force to work, it has to be made up not just of Russian forces, but of regional and NATO troops too. The coalition has to be broad enough, and strong enough, to provide a continuous military presence. This would create a secure environment for peace talks to happen.
Moscow can’t end the Syria crisis by itself; regional and Western support for any peace initiative is the key to securing a lasting peace.
Given Russia’s backing for Assad, the idea that it would join a stabilisation force that included troops backing Assad’s rivals seems farfetched, but such scenarios have been seen before. In the 1990s, despite its support for Serbia, Russia cooperated with NATO in stabilising the situation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, even conducting joint patrols with the US military.
The ceasefire initiative proposed by Ankara and Moscow is, in principle, the right way to bring about an end to the conflict in Syria. The only way to bring an end to the death and destruction is through a negotiated settlement. But as it stands, the proposal lacks serious buy-in from other regional and international powers.
The Astana talks have to be bolstered by all of the conflict’s stakeholders, alongside Syrian representatives. Assad’s statement that his position is on the table in negotiations is not, in itself, sufficient. The Syrian conflict is a regional and international proxy war, a popular uprising against a brutal dictator and a counter-extremism battle. Without support from a majority of actors, internal and external, with an interest in its outcome, Russia will never achieve a lasting settlement.