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The Syrian Ceasefire Has Shifted the Balance of Power to Assad
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The new ceasefire in Syria will not mean an end to the shooting, but it marks a crucial development in the five-and-a-half year long civil war. It will not stop the killing because the biggest armed opposition groups — Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra — are not covered by the agreement, and have a strong motive for making sure that it fails. But what is most important about the ceasefire, which began on Thursday night and appeared at first to be taking hold, is not so much what is agreed as who is doing the agreeing.

According to a draft copy of the Russian-Turkish agreement, the Turkish government “guarantees the commitment of the opposition in all the areas that the opposition controls to the ceasefire, including any type of shelling”. Russia gives similar guarantees on behalf of the Syrian government and its allies.

These are bland words, but what is important here is that Turkey is distancing itself from the armed opposition groups who have depended on its support or tolerance since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad started in 2011. Without such backing, anti-Assad forces may be unable to withstand Syrian government offensives in future. In other words, there has been a decisive shift in the balance of power inside Syria against the rebels and in favour of Assad.

This was the real message of the defeat of the rebels in east Aleppo. Their former allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, on occasion, the US – did nothing to save them. Turkey is giving priority to fighting the Kurds at home and abroad; getting rid of Assad is well down its political agenda. In sharp contrast, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah from Lebanon did everything to ensure that the Syrian army and its allies were victorious.

But the present ceasefire is not solely the result of Syrian and regional developments. The last hope of the non-Isis opposition in Syria and its foreign allies was that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election and switch US policy to one more committed to getting rid of Assad and more hostile to Russia. Instead, they were horrified by the election of Donald Trump, a candidate even more dismissive of the non-Isis rebels, focused on destroying Isis and more favourable to a Russian alliance than President Obama.

Will the US acceptance of Russia playing a dominant role in Syria be capsized by new US sanctions against Moscow and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats? Probably not, because what Trump is proposing to do openly in Syria is not much different from what Obama was doing without publicity. It is a long time since the US was seriously interested in getting rid of Assad — it has instead been concentrating on defeating Isis. This is likely to continue under Trump and might even have done under Hillary Clinton, if she had become president. At this stage, US policy in Syria and Iraq would in any case be difficult to unglue.

But in a broader sense President Obama’s measures against Russia and Secretary of State John Kerry’s denunciation of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians will have an impact on every aspect of US foreign policy. This is less because of specific policy initiatives, which can be dismissed as the empty gestures of an expiring administration, but because Obama’s actions are evidence that political warfare in the US post-election is not going to de-escalate. There may be a shaky ceasefire in Syria, but there is none in Washington.

The Russian-US relationship in Syria will remain a mixture of rivalry and cooperation. The most important decisions here have already been taken by Obama when he did not intervene militarily against Assad in August 2013 and when he accepted Russian intervention in September 2015. But the degree of cooperation with Russia will remain in dispute between different power centres in Washington. This was already the case, which is why the Syria ceasefire negotiated by the US and Russia in September this year almost immediately collapsed in rancour. Both sides were acutely mistrustful of the other: the US claimed that Russian and Syrian planes had deliberately bombed an aid convoy bound for east Aleppo. The Russians and Syrian government suspected that US airstrikes had deliberately targeted and killed 62 Syrian soldiers near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria.

The present Russian-Turkish ceasefire suffers from some of the weaknesses of the two previous Russian-US ones in February and September: several of the major combatants have not signed up and are unlikely to do so because the ceasefire is directed against them. But all three of the ceasefires of 2016 have been serious, even when they failed, because they have involved major players in the conflict: Russia, US, Turkey and, at one remove, Iran.

The interwoven crises in Syria are of nightmarish complexity and not all the arrows point towards peace. Turkey is backing away from supporting a war to overthrow Assad, but it is also weighing up the prospects for fighting the Syrian Kurds and eliminating their de facto state. President Bashar al-Assad has signed up to the latest ceasefire, but he makes no secret of his determination to retake all of Syria. He is probably waiting for the ceasefire to collapse because of its deficiencies before resuming the offensive.

Isis, which has been on the retreat in Syria and in Iraq, is by no means out of business. As east Aleppo was falling, its fighters recaptured Palmyra and advanced on an important Syrian airbase called T4. At the same time the Iraqi armed forces, so confident two months ago that they could retake Mosul quickly, are suffering heavy casualties in ferocious street fighting in the east of the city.


The Syrian and Iraqi wars are still full of nasty surprises for all participants, as the Trump presidency may soon find out for itself. Every crisis in the region is linked to every other. One of the biggest potential crises hanging over the Middle East is not Trump’s attitude to Russia, but to Iran. The role of Russia in Syria tends to be over-publicised and that of Iran, and its loose Shia coalition, tends to be under-reported. Up to the Russian military intervention in September 2015, it was the alliance with Iran that was most important to Assad. Iran certainly has not fought a long war in Syria, or in Iraq for that matter, to see the country impotent on the regional stage and divided up into zones of influence. Peace talks are to start soon in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, though the pro-Assad powers are not looking for power-sharing or compromise but a virtual surrender by the other side.

One does not have to spend long in Washington these days to find that, while there are many important people who detest Assad and Vladimir Putin, this feeling is far exceeded by the hatred they feel for the victors of the US presidential election. These divisions are bound to further envenom and shape policy decisions towards the crises and wars exploding in the Middle East.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Syria 
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  1. KA says:

    “One does not have to spend long in Washington these days to find that, while there are many important people who detest Assad and Vladimir Putin, this feeling is far exceeded by the hatred they feel for the victors of the US presidential election.”

    Who are these people? We know a lot of the in the media and will portray any action in negative light but they wont hurt Trump if he goes after Putin or Iran . Same is true in Pentagon and Defense . They may chide him for not doing enough They may lambast him after the job is done and that will par the course .

  2. maple says:

    “It is a long time since the US was seriously interested in getting rid of Assad — it has instead been concentrating on defeating Isis.”

    This is perhaps the most outstanding lie of this whole text, and Cocky of course knows it. A piece which oozes of his and other Yioninists total resignation to the fact that disintegration along sectarian lines in Syria ,despite their best and bloodiest efforts, is not going to happen.

    As long as Turkey is firmly in Russia´s pocket, nothing of the sort will happen. “israel” lost and will gradually become weaker and eventually a free democratic state for all races and ethnicities living in it, let´s call it Palestine. Live with it cocky, sour grapes.

  3. it has instead been concentrating on defeating Isis

    The US strategists most definitely aren’t concentrating on defeating Isis. Maybe on containing it, at most. They need Isis to counter the Iranian power, to break the Shia Crescent.

    And I don’t think US geopolitical strategies are controlled by US presidents. They are designed and monitored by professionals, outside the political theater.

    though the pro-Assad powers are not looking for power-sharing or compromise but a virtual surrender by the other side

    You don’t know that. Why are you making statements like this?

  4. unit472 says:

    17000 sorties by the US since Obama’s campaign began. That is a heavier air campaign than Curtis LeMay and his B-29’s mounted against Japan! If the US had generated 17,000 sorties over Iwo Jima it would have been a cake walk and not a blood bath. Russia is unlikely to have generated a tenth of that number in Syria.

    The Obama Administration thinks wasting fuel and munitions is a policy but it isn’t unless failure is your objective.

    • Replies: @Ace
    , @Jim Christian
  5. Greg Bacon says: • Website

    The new ceasefire in Syria will not mean an end to the shooting, but it marks a crucial development in the five-and-a-half year long civil war

    Buddy, what happened to Syria WAS NOT a civil war.
    We have Hillary’s State Department emails stating that the destruction of Syria would be good for Israel.
    We know that the State Dept–and the Brits–started funding ‘moderate’ opposition groups as far back as 2006, with the eventual goal of destroying Syria and Assad.

    We know that the CIA/Pentagon/NATO trained tens of thousands violent thugs, some ‘paroled’ from Saudi jails, and trained them in Jordan and Turkey, gave them weapons and money and western special forces advisers and ordered them to invade Syria. Then the West provided air cover and satellite intelligence to these thugs, proclaiming that they were bombing terrorists when they were really bombing Syria towns, hospitals, electrical plants, water treatment stations, etc while their terrorist buds were murdering Syrians en masse, then shooting videos of them eating human livers.

    So why do you still stick to the MSM lies about the Syrian invasion being a civil war?

    • Replies: @L.K
    , @Rudel
  6. L.K says:
    @Greg Bacon

    “So why do you still stick to the MSM lies about the Syrian invasion being a civil war?”

    Bc P.Cockburn is a gatekeeper, a propagandist for the Zio-Anglo-American Empire.
    The Brit msm does not employ truth-tellers.

  7. A lot of speculation without any references to back it up. But hey, that’s what happens when you employ War Correspondents who aren’t actually there. I suspect nearly all this stuff is written at Mr Cockburn’s nice farmhouse in the Republic of Ireland using 2nd and 3rd hand sources. Just like that guy who produces the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – from his living room in Coventry ! The UN considers it an accurate source – LAUGH OUT LOUD !

    Dear Mr Independent Editor,
    Mr Cockburn is getting on a bit and needs to retire. I offer to write his column from my living room in Britain. I will choose a wide range of sources – much wider than Mr C’s present list- and rigorously fact check them – just like Elyssa Young. I promise to do this for half Mr Cockburn’s fee. The other half will, of course, go to Mr Cockburn’s Care Home.
    I understand that your owner, Lord Alexander Oblomov, is not on good terms with V V Putin. I will deal with the matter with the utmost tact, whilst maintaining the column’s reputation for veracity.
    Yours sincerely,
    PS Mr Unz will supply you with my email address. References are available on request.

  8. Rudel says:
    @Greg Bacon

    It’s almost as if you’re claiming that the whole establishment narrative of the Syrian “civil war” is a lie, or something, and that they couldn’t even be bothered to make up a better cover story than “We’re intervening in a civil war to fight against both sides”…

  9. Thirdeye says:

    I don’t know about the balance of power shifting towards Assad but it has definitely shifted away from the US. The US propaganda efforts couldn’t cover the fact that the sole results of their regime change policy towards Syria were the rise of Takfirist insurgency and Kurdish separatism through Syria and Iraq. They took themselves out of the game as anything but advocates for the Kurds. They lost all credibility when their approach to the ceasefires of 2016 proved treacherous. Their Iraqi clients are no more able to defeat ISIS than Syria is. Turkey is the other big loser. Their intervention failed to achieve desired results and gave Erdogan a bunch of headaches – confrontation with Russia, insurgency and terrorism at home, and a swath of Kurdish-controlled territory that threatens to spread into Turkey. The Gulenist coup attempt showed the pro-western faction in Turkey to be disloyal. Turkey’s campaign to contain Kurdish influence threatens to put them on a collision course with the United States. They’re in need of allies more than anybody.

    Russia and Iran have pretty much gained the final word on what a final settlement in Syria would look like. It’s a matter of how much they’re willing to invest to restore the Syrian state. Turkey has to plead its case with Russia, which also has an interest in the stability of Turkey. Whatever concessions Turkey may gain will not be from their capacity to act but from the desire of their negotiating partners not to see Turkey descend any further into chaos.

  10. Ace says:

    I believe, but can’t cite any reliable source, that while many sorties by US planes have been flown, the restrictions on the pilots have been such that many have returned to base with unexpended ordnance and a high level of frustration.

    There has also been a US requirement that leaflets should be dropped on the oil tankers to warn the drivers.

    Too, there are at least two videos of apparent ISIS Toyota convoys in Syria or Iraq that appear to have been unmolested. With JSTARS assets available they could not have gone undetected. Therefore, they were unmolested by command decision.

    I surmise as well that ISIS withdrawals from Mosul are similarly visible to JSTARS observation but they too have been unimpeded. There may not have been such withdrawals, it’s true, but I believe the initial plan for Mosul envisioned them and did not include attacks on them.

    Finally, the air attacks on the SAA at Deir ez-Zor (sp?) appears to casual observation to have been a mighty operation quite sui generis. The ISIS positions can’t be hard to pin point but I’ve read of no OTHER attacks there on the RIGHT targets.

    However many US planes there may be in the air over Syria I don’t get the impression that the US is serious about attacking anything.

    The Russians, by way of contrast, destroyed over a thousand tankers in something like a week. The US had a suspicious lack of interest before that, if you ask me.

  11. @unit472

    17000 sorties, even sorties that dropped bombs over 8 years is NOTHING. With tactical Air, you need that many every 7 days to make hay. Even that was dwarfed by Desert Storm at 3200 sorties a day. When you concentrate your air power, you get results. All we have had for 8 years is a slow and steady bleed. We destroyed everything to the point of bouncing the rubble, but didn’t accomplish a goddamned thing. I expected nothing different once we got involved in Syria and deserted Iraq.

    Today? There’s nothing left to save. Ghost towns, deserted, no water, sewers, economy, most of the people gone. Civilizations destroyed, dozens of them. They aren’t getting built back, yet still we refuse to walk away. We can do no good, why stay? We don’t need the oil, we create new enemies by the day and the only bigger mistake we make (deliberate destruction by Obama) is to accept the hulking and violent men from that region into this country. Oil? China, Japan and Korea’s problem, let THEM defend it.

    That of course assumes honest brokers in Washington, perhaps impossible. The defense contractors don’t want to give it all up and don’t much care for the American interest that lightens their pockets in the least. The intel and defense contractors after all are the ones that produce assassins. Can’t get around that.

  12. “they were horrified by the election of Donald Trump, a candidate even more dismissive of the non-Isis rebels, focused on destroying Isis and more favourable to a Russian alliance than President Obama.”

    Since when was Obama – who recently signed a decree allowing transfer of anti-aircraft missiles to “moderate” headchopper cannibals, and openly finds and trains them – “dismissive” of non ISIS “rebels”? When he allowed ISIS to drive across empty desert to take Palmyra for the first time in 2015, was he “focussed on destroying” them? Or when the Americans helped ISIS take Jebel Thardah in 2016 by bombing interlinked Syrian Army bases, getting them positions overlooking the vital Deir Az Zor airport, was that something that would “destroy” them? What?

  13. AK says: • Website

    There will never be any positive cease fires or agreements in the ME as long as the Americans, British or their allies are involved. There can only be a solution when the people that are affected by the Wars introduce the agreements. Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar – they all need to be bombed to hell in order for them to see that a reasonable solution is to be had – never happen. Kazak is far enough away from those ” War Mongers representing the West” that a reasonable solution can prevail.

    • Replies: @Bianca
  14. Bianca says:

    I am not finding this assessment realistic. US has done everything in its power to keep Al-Nusra capable to stay in Aleppo. Let’s just look at facts. Arms, professional “activists” and “bloggers” reporting from the “rebel” East Aleppo, contrary to all the common sense — and knowledge of their brutality to civilians, kept hostage for years. Now we know that. Warehouses of US arms uncovered, with the pompous writing, “From US, for our common defense”. The mournful media coverage of the “fall of Aleppo”, never mentioning the joys of liberation that population experienced once the terrorist area was split in two, and the gash was too wide for Al-Nusra to plug, allowing civilians to exit to Government controlled areas. The field medical facilities saw the type of injuries that civilians suffered, and many untreated conditions. Personal stories of tragedies, never shown of Western media, nor mentioned in any official Washington pronouncements. Let us not pretend now that US really did not support terrorists, making it difficult every step of the way for Russia, and now Turkey and Iran — to bring to heel Al-Nusra most prestigious prize, Aleppo. Even as we speak, US is quietly cheering Al-Nusra’s contamination of water sources for Syrian population, as well as their turning off a gas pipeline. Enough is enough. Al-Qaeda under any name is going to remain international terrorist organization — and will not be recognized as a party to Syrian political settlement. Same goes for ISIS. US has effectively protected ISIS for a long time, and only took shots at some desert rocks here and there. By telling Russia that the part of the sky over ISIS is controlled by the “coalition”, US insured that Russia cannot attack ISIS, only Al-Nusra. The calculus was that Russia was going to get entangled by Al-Qaeda, and ISIS would remain a place holder to future Kurdish state — whose constitution Obama administration is still writing. But it did not happen as planned.

    I cannot see Trump administration having any mercy towards terrorists, armed groups that are trying to get a legitimate government overturned. And while under Obama administration there were disagreements on how to tackle Syria, I doubt very much that this will be the case in Trump organization. I do not think that anyone protecting terrorist “assets” will have much future in the bureaucracy.

    I am not convinced that Trump would like to get into nation -building business, and then have another albatross around American taxpayers neck for the next one hundred years. Such gems, as Bosnia, Kosovo, South Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq are costly enough. There won’t be any Kurdish state, specially not the one that will include border areas with Turkey, to connect Afrin and Kobani areas. Thus, RUSSIA, TURKEY AND IRAN have declared their commitment to Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thus, no new states, and Kurds may have to satisfy themselves with some autonomy in their two separate areas.

  15. Bianca says:

    Fully agree. There will not be any chance of successful restoration of peace, if any of the warring Gulf states are involved, or any Western governments that are responsible for starting the chaos in the first place. Solutions will have to be regional, and by actors that have “skin in the game”, that is, want to see peace restored. Russia, Iran and Turkey need the region to return to peace and commerce, and the end of draining their economies and productive population of opportunities that growing Eurasian region offers. Syria and Iraq are in the same boat. The sooner Western colonial whiff dissipates from the ME air, the better.

  16. Anonymous [AKA "Nabster"] says:

    Patrick: I agree with attempting to work closely with the Russians on on resolving conflict in Syria and with the same in the Ukraine, as much as I despise Trump overall. But I do think it is clear that the Russian hacked into DNC and Podesta computers. We just have to find some way to compartmentalize these matters. We must keep the Russians out of American politics while we work with them on matters of mutual interest. As much as we might dislike the CIA and intelligence community, I trust that Obama would not push this if it were not likely true. Also, remember that the intelligence community was not really wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Cheney and the neocons cooked the books. I do not believe Obama did or would do such a thing. Trying to deny Russian interference in our political process when the evidence seems strong only undermines what I believe is your credibility in providing the most reliable reporting about issues, especially in the Middle East.

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