Last month (December 2016), the eastern half of Syria’s prewar most-populated city, Aleppo, held by opposition fighters since 2012, fell under a relentless assault from joint Iranian, Russian and pro-government Syrian forces The Syrian opposition fighters, together with some of the civilian population, were allowed to withdraw from Aleppo to the nearby opposition-held province of Idlib after their defenses were crushed and resistance became senseless. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-led Shia militias did not seem happy with the opposition’s withdrawal from Aleppo, but Moscow insisted on a free passage. A reinforced battalion of Russian military police (MP) consisting of Sunni Muslim soldiers—mostly former Chechen separatist fighters who now serve under the Russian flag—with some additional personnel coming from other Sunni Muslim regions of Russia were deployed in Syria (see EDM, December 8, 2016). According to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, today these Chechen Muslim MPs “defend Aleppo” (Instagram.com, January 24).
After Aleppo’s fall, the future of the Syrian opposition forces looked bleak. It seemed reasonable to expect the joint pro-al-Assad forces would keep up the momentum and push further to uproot the Syrian opposition from their last major positions: the city of Idlib, the surrounding province as well as opposition-held suburbs of Damascus. But Moscow apparently had other plans. At the end of December, Russia and Turkey agreed on a ceasefire and peace talks between the Syrian government and the armed opposition, in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana (Anadolu, December 28, 2016). The ceasefire, though shaky, has been holding. The peace talks in Astana proceeded as planned this week under the auspices of Russia, Turkey and Iran. No breakthroughs came out of the latest Astana meeting, but there has been no outright collapse of the talks either. All sides have agreed to maintain the ceasefire and continue a dialogue through intermediaries, which allowed Russia to claim overall success (RIA Novosti, January 24).
The opposition forces were represented in Astana not by the political representatives of the revolutionary anti-al-Assad forces, but by a delegation of field commanders led by Mohammed Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam—a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units primarily operating in the Damascus area, in the city of Douma and Eastern Ghouta. Other large opposition armed groups were absent, in particular Ahrar al-Sham, a dominant force in Idlib, in the north of Syria. With only a fraction of opposition fighters present, there was no practical reason to expect any fundamental breakthrough in Astana. Arab states that support the anti-al-Assad opposition were also not represented. Russia and Turkey extended an invitation to the new administration of President Donald Trump, while Iran resisted any presence of officials from the United States. In the end, the US sent as an “observer” its ambassador to Astana, George Krol, apparently to play to role of a fly on the wall. Foreign observers and diplomats accredited in Astana, together with the press, roamed the lobby of the Rixos Hotel (the venue for the Astana talks), evidently baffled as to Moscow’s true aims in organizing the meeting. A vague communiqué was issued after two days of talks. The Syrian opposition and government teams had refused to talk face to face and were present together only at the opening plenary session. The United Nations’ Syria mediator, Staffan de Mistura, announced he intends to reconvene peace talks, in Geneva, on February 8, apparently involving the political wing of the Syrian opposition but without any guarantee these talks may achieve any success. Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to jointly monitor the ceasefire, while the opposition delegation accused Iran of interference in the Syrian war. At the same time, the al-Assad government delegation accused Turkey of supporting “terrorists” (RBC, January 24).
On its face, Astana looks like one more still-born attempt at reaching an overall Syrian settlement; but Russia’s true objectives for the meeting may have been quite different. The military success of the Aleppo offensive demonstrated the futility of opposing Russian firepower in the open or entrenched within a large city. Now, Russia is offering the Syrian opposition (Islamists and Salafists included) a deal: To die fighting or sign up as de facto collaborators. This seems to be working at least with Jaysh al-Islam and other smaller groups that were represented in Astana. Jaysh al-Islam’s leader, Alloush, announced his desire to continue talks with Moscow and expressed hope that the Russians could curtail the activities of Iran and the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah (RBC, January 24).
In Idlib and the north of Syria, Ahrar al-Sham and other opposition groups have apparent backing from Turkey. But in and around Damascus, the opposition, including Jaysh al-Islam, is effectively surrounded. An Aleppo-style siege of Eastern Ghouta with full Russian support would surely end in the opposition’s defeat. However, at present, Moscow seems to have other plans and Alloush was granted some positive coverage on Russian state TV. The head of the Russian delegation in Astana, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters, “Both sides are violating the ceasefire in Syria, but al-Assad’s pro-government forces do it more often because of provocations organized by al-Nusra [al-Nusra Front, a radical Islamist militant group in Syria recently renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham].” Lavrentyev announced that Moscow will be focusing on pacifying Eastern Ghouta and Wadi Barada in the Damascus region, “though it cannot be said that Eastern Ghouta is fully controlled by the moderate opposition” (Militarynews.ru, January 24).
Accusing al-Assad forces of violating the ceasefire is a change of tone; and previously, the Russian military denied the very existence of a “moderate Syrian opposition.” According to Lavrentyev, Russian military representatives held separate direct talks with the Syrian opposition delegation in Astana, which “lasted through the night.” The two sides agreed on maps of delimitation of the opposition with internationally designated terrorists from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Islamic State (Militarynews.ru, January 24). The Russian military continues to carpet-bomb the Islamic State and other designated evildoers in Syria, despite the ceasefire, while offering a place and a political future to the opposition that is willing to sign deals and eventually turn coat like the Chechen “kadyrovtsy” (see above). The secret direct military talks with the opposition delegation in Astana could have been the main reason the meeting was organized. Moscow seems to be trying to somewhat distance itself from al-Assad and his Iranian sponsors. At the same time, Moscow is seemingly attempting to build closer ties with Sunnis in Syria and possibly throughout the Middle East as a basis for Russia’s long-term future dominance in the region.