As of sunset yesterday a new major ceasefire has been agreed in Syria. But what does it mean for Syria, the Middle East, and world relations?
On Friday, John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign ministers of the United States and Russia, appeared before the world press to announce a newly agreed upon roadmap to end the Syrian civil war. Although most of the details of the deal were not presented, what was announced was that the deal starts with a ceasefire between the Assad regime and the Western-backed opposition, starting yesterday at sunset. That opens a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid into Aleppo and other besieged areas. All fighting groups will also pull back from Castello Road, a key road into Aleppo. The Syrian air force will also stop operating in all of these areas, which will from now on be patrolled by Russian and US planes.
A week after the ceasefire the United States and Russia are to set up a Joint Implementation Center to coordinate their interventions in Syria. The two countries will then launch a campaign against the Islamic State as well as Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (JFS), a new name taken on by Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
Whether the ceasefire will last through its first week is yet to be seen. All the powers in the region have agreed to it, but that does not mean that their proxies and local militias will abide by it. The Salafi/Wahhabi group, Harakat Ahrar Al-Sham (AAS), which, along with JFS, constitutes one of two strongest groups in the anti-Assad opposition, has already refused to accept the deal. The vast majority of the so-called moderate opposition groups which are supported by the US are tiny groups embedded within these two larger groups. In fact, it is impossible to tell where the US proxies stop and where the Jihadist groups begin. It will be very hard for these groups to separate, even if they wished to do so. At the same time Assad, who previously agreed to the deal, has declared his full intention to retake all of Syria—a clear provocation.
However, the main point about this deal is not the deal itself, which may or may not last, but the changing balance of power in the Middle East and world relations which it reflects. “The United States is going the extra mile,” John Kerry said at the announcement, “because we believe Russia and my colleague have the capability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and come to the table and make peace.”
The role of Russia on a world scale is becoming more prominent, and the US ruling class is forced to accept it. On Sunday, the head of the CIA, John Brennan, said in an interview on CBC,
I think that Russia is a world power, clearly. And they are involved in many different parts of the world, military capability. They’re involved in the Middle East right now, obviously in Ukraine, Central Asia.
So, Russia is a formidable adversary in a number of areas. Also, there are areas that we need to be able to work with Russia, specifically in Syria.
These are significant words, coming from a top official of the US ruling class. Until recently it would have been unthinkable for the United States, the sole superpower, to present a common peace plan with Russia, call it a world power, or “go the extra mile” for it. On the contrary, Barack Obama and the US political establishment were aiming all their guns at Russia, which they portrayed as a threat to “Western democracy.” Nevertheless, that is exactly what has happened.
Sergei Lavrov was quick to remind the press that Russia had already made a similar proposal last year when it began its intervention in Syria. Back then the proposal was flatly refused.
John Kerry also had to underline that going after JFS was “not a concession.” That would be plausible if it wasn’t for the fact that the vast majority of US-vetted groups in Syria are in close cooperation with JFS. In fact, since the beginning of the US coalition bombing of Syria, JFS has only been the target of a handful of the thousands of raids the US has made. That is in spite of the fact that JSF—which, along with its close partner, AAS, controls all of Idlib governorate and large parts of Aleppo—has no ideological difference with the Islamic State. In fact, ISIS set up JFS before they split over matters of personal power and prestige.
Going after JFS will also mean targeting the main threats to the Assad regime. Thus, all the noise about removing Assad has died down, although it will resume eventually.
Even until a few weeks ago the prospects for a deal seemed dim, as the US refused to accept the facts on the ground. The reimposition of a siege on Aleppo and the Turkish incursion into Northern Syria threatened to leave the US in the cold, however, with very little room to maneuver. With this deal Russia is essentially extending a face-saving helping hand to the US, although Putin will make sure to point this out at every possible opportunity.
Since the beginning of the civil war the US has been staggering from one failure to another. The original intervention by the CIA along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, which channelled billions of dollars into the Islamist opposition, quickly spiralled out of control, leading to the rise of Islamic State. Scarred by the economic and political effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US could not intervene directly in Syria, and had to withdraw most of its troops from Iraq. A new US-led war would lead to a huge political and economic crisis as well as spark off a mass movement which would dwarf the antiwar movement of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The crisis of US imperialism is the key to its relative decline, as it limits its abilities to intervene. Instead, it is forced to lean on forces such as Hezbollah and Iran to battle ISIS. This was the basis of the nuclear deal that the US struck with Iran, basically accepting the former member of the “Axis of Evil” as a major power and a possible partner in the Middle East.
The deal with Iran, and the lack of any appetite to finish what it started in Syria and Iraq, in turn alienated the traditional allies of the US who had invested much in the campaign against Assad and who, more importantly, were in fierce competition with Iran. This led to the opening of big fissures in the US-led bloc and even inside the US establishment itself. While the Pentagon and the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) began a campaign against ISIS, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the CIA continued support for Jihadist groups of all shapes and kinds.
The Pentagon instead threw its weight behind the Kurdish YPG group, which is the largest and most efficient army in Syria at the moment. This alienated the Turkish regime, which sees the Kurds as an existential threat to the interests of Turkish capitalism and feels threatened by a Kurdish state stretching its southern borders. But while the US armed forces wanted to target ISIS, the CIA, backed by the Saudis and the Turks, were only interested in fighting the Assad regime. These contradictions led to a low intensity war between CIA- and DIA-backed groups taking place over the past 10 months.
US-Turkey relations in particular have ebbed. While the US-backed YPG forces were advancing across Northern Syria, Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman designs were collapsing rapidly. Aleppo was being besieged, the YPG was advancing west of the Euphrates, the fall of Assad seemed improbable, Islamist attacks were on the rise inside Turkey, and the economic effects of Erdogan’s clash with Russia after the downing of the Russian fighter jet last year were bearing heavily on the economy. The Erdogan regime was in crisis and retreating to the extent that Erdogan had to publicly apologize to Putin in order to normalize relations between the two countries.
Being a cold-blooded cynic, however, Putin extended an olive branch to Erdogan and reopened ties between the two countries at a time when Turkey’s relationship with the US was at an all-time low.
The July 15 attempted coup in Turkey was a decisive turning point. While the coup was not organized and promoted by the US, it was clear that Turkish officers deep inside NATO structures were involved. The following purge of the army was also a major source of concern for NATO, which has always been closer to the Turkish army than to any of its governments. As Erdogan strengthened his domestic position and got closer to Russia, there was a real fear among US and Western strategists that NATO could lose its second largest army and a key geopolitical asset.
It was in this context that Turkey embarked on its incursion into Syria, with tacit support from the Russians. Erdogan has long been calling for such a campaign by NATO, but the West has opposed it on the grounds that it would drag NATO into a full-scale war in Syria. Furthermore, it is a clear move against the YPG, who have been the most reliable “boots on the ground” for the US. The fact that the US has special forces embedded amongst the Kurdish forces makes the Turkish move an even greater provocation. But with the tacit support of Russia—who could easily have stopped the intervention—Erdogan presented a fait accompli which the US is helpless to do anything about. In fact, US rhetoric towards Erdogan has suddenly softened, as they are trying to bring him back into the fold and away from Russia.
The incursion into Northern Aleppo by Turkey seems to have been traded off for Aleppo city, which Loyalist forces managed to besiege in the past two months. This was the final straw that convinced the US to accept Russia’s terms. In fact, it is true to say that Putin is extending a hand and saving Obama from a complete humiliation.
Russia is now calling the shots in Syria. Of course, this does not mean that Russia is a power on the same level as the US. The Russian economy is in a crisis and the government has just announced deep cuts in defense spending. In fact, Russia did not have the resources to intervene on a massive scale in Syria. Instead it has had to rely on Iranian-backed troops on the ground who have been able to avoid the collapse of the regime, but are not efficient in offensive situations. The Syrian army itself is in a state of complete decay. Desertions, corruption, and a very weak general staff means that it is highly inefficient against well-motivated and relatively well-fed jihadists. In fact, in large areas the army has disintegrated into local gangs led by warlords outside the control of the Assad regime.
In July, the Tiger Forces, a glorified private militia, managed over many weeks to close the siege of Aleppo by taking the northern parts of the city. A few days later, however, the easily defendable southern parts of the siege collapsed under the impact of a week-long rebel offensive. It took the relocation of the Tiger Forces and a massive one month bombing campaign to close the siege again.
At the same time an unexpected rebel offensive in the relatively dormant northern Hama front led to the collapse of loyalist defenses and the rebels coming within 6 miles of the key city of Hama. The weakness of the Assad regime is clearly evident for all, a fact which weakens his army even more.
But while the Russians and the Iranians are not strong enough to take over all of Syria, the weakness of the US means that they can use “access denial”—that is, to put in place massive military and political obstacles to render difficult any maneuvers of its adversaries—as a strategy to punch above their economic and military weight. The Russians have no interest in solving the crisis, which would weaken their overall influence over other parties in the conflict. They want to keep the region concentrated on Syria in order to use their weight and play the local powers and groups off against each other. This was the rationale behind Putin allowing Turkey back into the war by invading Northern Aleppo.
By creating a de facto frozen conflict involving all Middle Eastern powers—in which he holds all the cards—Putin has turned himself into a regional power broker. The traditional allies of the US, on the other hand—as we saw in the case of Turkey—are using the presence of a second power to pressure the US to give more concessions. In a similar manner, Israel and Russia have recently announced plans for a joint Israeli-Palestinian peace summit—another clear provocation by both governments towards the Obama administration.
The weakness of US imperialism has opened a vacuum into which Russia is stepping. With very little investment, Russia is becoming a key player in the Middle East.