Three weeks after the evacuation of the armed Syrian opposition from Aleppo, it is clear that this evacuation was part of a much broader Russian-Turkish agreement that also included a truce and the beginning of a political process.
After the departure of the opposition forces from Aleppo, Moscow arranged a tripartite meeting between the Russian, Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers which culminated in the Moscow Declaration on 20 December.
Outlining a roadmap to a political solution, the Declaration calls for an expansion of the truce in Aleppo to include the whole of Syria and all the warring factions apart from the Islamic State (IS) group, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (the Syria Conquest Front, formerly the Al-Nusra Front) and the Kurdish factions followed by a revival of the political process.
There then followed the negotiations in Turkey between Russia and the representatives of the Syria opposition factions which resulted in the Ankara Agreement. This consists of three documents, one containing articles concerning a cessation of hostilities between the opposition and the regime, the second pertaining to mechanisms for monitoring the truce and conveying humanitarian aid to blockaded areas and the third detailing new peace negotiations in Kazakhstan.
The agreement was signed on 29 December, and the Russian-Turkish ceasefire went into effect the next day.
The Agreement has inspired hope among many Syrians, especially as this was the first time Russia and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had recognised the armed Syrian opposition factions as parties in the talks. They had earlier referred all who had taken up arms against the regime as terrorists.
The Syrian people were also heartened because the Russians had agreed to the opposition’s demand that the truce comprise the whole of Syrian territory. Prior to this, the regime and Iran had insisted on exempting numerous areas that they planned to seize control of during the ceasefire.
Two US-Russian sponsored ceasefires have earlier failed: The first following the Vienna Conference (in mid-November 2015) and the second (in mid-September 2016) following talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry on coordinating Russian-US efforts against extremist organisations in Syria.
The Syrian regime breached both ceasefires, and the Russians did not intervene. This time round there are several new factors, however.
With regard to Aleppo, the Russians said they alone would be responsible for securing the city and that Syrian and Iranian militias would not be allowed into it. These militias have become notorious for killing and for the rampant plundering of areas they control.
One senior Syrian army officer who has joined the opposition camp told Al-Ahram Weekly that Russia had sent in some 400 military police armed with sophisticated weaponry to maintain security in Aleppo.
Only Syrian military police have been allowed into the city. All members of the Syrian army and pro-regime and pro-Iranian militias are prohibited entry, and Syrian security agencies are permitted to operate only if they obtain prior approval from the Russians.
According to the officer, around 40 regime security agency members have been arrested for acting without permission. “The Russians want the restoration of security in Aleppo to be a victory for the Syrian state, not for the regime,” he said.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that the Russians had taken three senior army officers from the regime to Russia. “These officers will be at the negotiating table in Kazakhstan, and they will be ready to sign everything the Russians require. The plan is to marginalise top figures that the Russians might find troublesome,” he said.
The second factor that heartens optimists is the Turkish position. Turkish officials have stated that their country’s position towards the Syrian regime remains unchanged, and Ankara would have rejected the evacuation of Syrian armed opposition factions connected with Turkey from Aleppo if this had been credited as a victory for the Syrian regime.
“But the Russians prevented Al-Assad from coming to Aleppo to deliver a victory speech in spite of his desire to do so,” the officer said.
Thirdly, the Russians have modified their stance towards the armed opposition, some portions of which are Islamist. Russia has agreed that representatives of these forces may take part in the negotiations in Kazakhstan.
Other features that distinguish the current ceasefire from its predecessors are the absence of Russian-American bickering and the presence of the two most influential foreign parties in Syria, namely Russia, the most important backer of the regime, and Turkey, which has the greatest influence over both the armed and political opposition factions.
In addition, the agreement calls for the deployment of Russian and Turkish observers, the creation of checkpoints in flashpoint areas, and a system to penalise breaches of the truce. This is the first time that foreign observers have been posted in flashpoint areas in Syria.
All the foregoing is indicative of the seriousness of Russian intentions, indicating that this time they realise they have an interest in bringing the Syrian crisis to an end.
Syrian opposition member Ali Abdullah Kathir does not have much hope in the process, however. “The Russian-Turkish-Iranian consensus will not have a positive effect on the conflict in Syria in view of questions related to its sustainability and prospects of success,” he said.
“There are discrepancies in the motives behind the agreement and the three countries’ conflicting perceptions regarding the nature of any solution to the crisis. Moreover, there are problems due to the reactions of the regional and international powers that were excluded from the agreement and whose interests were ignored.”
“Russia, which wants to control the matter and steer the regional and international interplay around it, might be forced to renege on the agreement and resume the use of force if it fails to persuade the new US administration to give it the international role it wants and to begin lifting economic sanctions against it and recognise the legitimacy of its annexation of Crimea.”
“In the event that Moscow fails to soften the US position on Iran, or that Turkey succeeds in persuading the new US administration to relinquish its support for Kurdish demands in Syria, or if Ankara discovers how much damage it has caused by its manoeuvres that have forfeited Sunni support because it sold out Aleppo for the sake of Russian cover, there will also be major problems,” Kathir said.
It is widely believed that the Russians accelerated the process before US President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in later this month. The Russians are convinced that Trump will oppose previous policy in Syria and therefore have decided to make a rapid shift from being a party in the war to being an accepted mediator.
This, the Russians believe, will lessen the risk of a clash with the forthcoming US administration and increase the probabilities of compromise after they prove to Washington that they are capable of making peace and have a constructive role to play in the region.
However, another hypothesis holds that the Russians have realised that in providing enormous air cover for the Syrian regime forces they have created the conditions that have enabled Iran and its Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghani militias on the ground to gain control over large portions of Syrian territory.
As this conflicts with Russian strategy, they have thus moved to intervene and engineer a ceasefire and negotiating process so as to reach a compromise solution to put an end to Iran’s and the Syrian regime’s designs threatening Russia’s long-term strategy.
For the Syrian opposition, a compromise solution cannot include the perpetuation of Al-Assad and his senior aides in power. Some quarters of the Russian press have released reports suggesting that Moscow understands this and is shifting from a pro-Assad stance to one that supports a comprehensive solution for Syria.
Although Iran attempted to undermine the Russian-Turkish Agreement by preventing fighters from leaving Aleppo unless Iranian fighters were able to leave besieged villages nearby, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other moderate voices in Tehran have emphasised the need not to work against Russia in Syria.
There remain numerous mines on the path of the Russian roadmap for peace in Syria. Tehran and Damascus are reluctant to concede that Aleppo is the last battle in the war, and they will manoeuvre to promote a military solution in other parts of Syria.
The US position remains unclear. Given the many variables, it is difficult to predict whether Washington will take a flexible or a hardline stance on Russia’s actions.
But the truce, even if temporary, is preferable to nothing at all even as Syrians and others throughout the region continue to hold out hopes that the most important players in the crisis, the Russians and the US, will agree on the need to put an end to this Middle Eastern crisis that has left hardly anyone unscathed.