Syria – Lessons Learnt After Afrin and Sochi
On 20 January, Turkey launched an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in North-West Syria. A few days later, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress was reunited in Sochi by Russia, and failed to achieve its goals.
"Attacking the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin was thus a way for Ankara to send a message of protest to Washington"
Both events have been preceded by Mr. Tillerson’s important speech at the Hoover Institution on 17 January. For the first time in many years, the speech drew the lines of a clear American strategy on the Syrian conflict, and confirmed America’s renewed involvement.
Turkey had been planning its offensive for quite some time. It is possible however that the U.S. reengagement in the conflict contributed to triggering Ankara’s attack on Afrin. An important pillar of the new American strategy is to maintain a military presence on the Euphrates’ banks and to sustain the partnership the country built with the YPD - the Syrian Kurds branch of the PKK party - during its fight against Daesh. The announcement of the creation of a 30 000-men local military force, under Kurdish command, could only irritate Turkish leaders further.
Attacking the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin was thus a way for Ankara to send a message of protest to Washington, even though the operation’s military goals are yet to be specified. On domestic affairs, Mr. Erdogan is enjoying renewed popularity thanks to this operation. The only ones opposed to the offensive are members of the pro-Kurdish party. In addition, the Turkish operation would probably not have seen the day without Russia’s green light to let Turkish planes fly into Syria’s airspace, which is entirely under Moscow’s control.
"Sochi's failure contrasts with the conventional wisdom according to which Russia has been ensuring the country’s fate for months."
We should thus also consider the Turkish offensive as a way for Moscow to warn Washington of the kind of response it will give to the U.S.’ will to stay in North-East Syria (over a quarter of the country’s territory). Moreover, Americans won’t come to rescue Afrin, which is located outside of the zone covered by their partnership with the YPD. The Kurdish party is thus encouraged to get along with Damascus. Such a friendship would further complicate the U.S.’ position and benefit Russia.
Sochi's failure contrasts with the conventional wisdom according to which Russia has been ensuring the country’s fate for months. In reality, it seems that Russians are struggling to transform their military successes into a political agreement that would consecrate their vision of Syria’s future.
It is worth noting that Russians can hardly blame the West for getting in their way. Mr. Tillerson’s speech, which followed from the agreement reached between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin during their Danang meeting back in November, includes a section on cooperation with Russia. Reunited in Paris on 23 January, ministers from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Jordan announced that they would not require international discussions to address Assad’s fate anymore. Instead, they recommended that the UN mediation rather focus on a new Constitution draft and on impartial elections. Two days later, in Vienna, the Damascus regime refused to make any concessions, including on discussions regarding the reform of the Constitution. Under such circumstances, the opposition had no choice but to boycott Sochi. Because of the collusion between Russia and Turkey, the Kurds were also unable to attend. Given this peculiar context, the United States, France and the United Kingdom had no reason to show up.
"The only way we can hope for peace is if Russia realizes that real negotiations are needed to stop this dangerous spiral, which will lead to uncertain consequences."
What preliminary lessons could be drawn from these developments?
- The never ending Syrian war goes on: fierce attacks from the regime and its allies against the Ghouta and the Idlib region are only intensifying. The regime’s use of chlorine seems to have become more and more frequent. The priority of all Western policies should thus be to help the population enduring sieges and bombings, and to prevent, or at least sanction, the use of chemical weapons.
- Another top priority for the West should be to pacify relations with Turkey. Indeed, pursuing the alliance with the YPD makes sense, but it should be complemented with a broader negotiation with Turkey on the Kurdish issue. The time may have come for the PKK to declare a ceasefire in Turkey and to provide Ankara with guarantees of non-aggression from the Syrian land, in exchange for the safeguarding of its territorial gains. The West is in the best position to take this kind of initiative. It would involve a “de-escalating zone” in North-East Syria secured by the anti-Daesh coalition, and if possible Turkey, or even Russia, if they agree to play along.
- Washington’s new approach, as formalized by Mr. Tillerson, has just faced its first challenge. Some analysts in the U.S. oppose the administration’s approach, while others endorse it but flag its insufficient resources. No doubt the Afrin issue illustrates the risks the American reengagement involves. It is nonetheless also true that, thanks to a continued military presence in North-East Syria and to Mr. Tillerson’s public statement in favor of a political settlement, the U.S. and their allies are currently in a better position to influence discussions regarding this forsaken country’s future.
- Finally, Sochi’s failure is primarily due to the Syrian regime’s refusal to even consider showing the slightest flexibility, and to Russia’s overestimation of its assets. On top of this political setback, a number of incidents - drones over the Russian airbase of Hmeimim a few weeks ago, or a Russian plane taken down on 3 February above Idlib province - suggest that Mr. Putin might have been ahead of himself when he claimed “mission accomplished” in Syria.
Overall, new tensions are rising now that the opposition has been defeated by the regime’s allies, and that Daesh has been overcome by the pro-West coalition. The risks that tensions between the various protagonists - the regime, Russians, Americans, Kurds, Turks, Iranians - escalate or get out of control are now more serious than ever. The only way we can hope for peace is if Russia realizes that real negotiations are needed to stop this dangerous spiral, which will lead to uncertain consequences.