Why diplomacy and foreign military intervention won’t end the Syrian war anytime soon

Late last week representatives from 17 countries – including Saudi Arabia and Iran – plus the UN and EU (so no representatives from either the Assad government or the anti-Assad opposition) met in Vienna to discuss the Syrian civil war. The outcome was a “Final Declaration” on basic principles, which the media generally interpreted as a hopeful sign that the “international community” was moving toward some kind of consensus on how to end the Syrian civil war.

I don’t agree. My take is that at best – and even this is very unlikely – the Vienna Declaration will prove a first step toward getting key external actors – notably Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Turkey, Russia, and the United States – to limit their direct or indirect involvement in the war, including the delivery of weapons. That might at least ameliorate the scale of violence in the country. But in my view the Vienna participants cannot end the war or pave the way toward a political settlement for months if not years. And unfortunately almost none of the provisions in the Vienna Declaration will be implemented (more on this in a moment).


Physical map of Syria, with main roads and geographical features

There are two fundamental reasons why I think this: (1) the battlefield situation is not conducive to a ceasefire and won’t be in the foreseeable future; and (2) there is no consensus among the Vienna participants about how to reduce the violence, let alone end it.

Syria’s 14 governorates (provinces)

By implication, then, Russia’s military intervention should be understood first and foremost as a military move directed at keeping Assad in power (or perhaps the current “regime” without Assad in power), and in this it is likely to succeed. It will also likely preserve Russia’s continued access to its growing military assets in Tartus province, Latakia province, and perhaps elsewhere in Syria. But what it will not do, despite what many have suggested, is give Russia a seat at the table when a political solution is worked out because there is very little chance that we are going to get an externally driven peace settlement for the foreseeable future.

The same, I should note, can be said of the U.S. intervention in Syria. With luck, U.S. diplomatic efforts over Syria might lead to a reduction of violence and a shorter war. Its military intervention may keep ISIS on its heels and reduce the area it controls, and at some point well down the road it may even help defeat it. But degrading ISIS or even defeating it is not by itself going bring about an end to the war – consider the violence and chaotic battlefield in the country before ISIS emerged as a significant force over the course of 2013.

Ethno-religious distribution, 1976

Moreover, to the extent that the United States is able to influence developments inside Syria, for the time being it is going to be primarily by military means, not diplomacy, except to the extent that diplomacy can assist the coalition campaign against ISIS or help provide military support to less objectionable groups among the anti-Assad opposition. Ultimately, ISIS is going to survive or disappear by virtue of its performance on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table.

Let me start, then, with the Vienna Final Declarations and explain why few, if any, of its provisions can be implemented in the foreseeable future.

The full text of the declaration can be found here, but its ten points can be summarized as follows: (1) Syria will not be partitioned; (2) its state institutions are to remain “intact;” (3) the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religion, are to be protected; (4) diplomatic efforts to end the war will be accelerated; (5) humanitarian access is to be “ensured” and support for displaced persons increased; (6) ISIS and other terrorist organizations, as defined by the UNSC or as agreed upon by the participants, are to be defeated; (7) a political process is to lead to “credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance,” followed by the adoption of a new constitution and elections under U.N. supervision; (8) the Syrian people are to decide Syria’s future; (9) the participants will seek to bring about a nationwide ceasefire; and (10) the participants will try to narrow differences and reconvene within two weeks.

Of these, I can think of only one that will certainly be implemented: the international community is not going to formally partition Syria, at least for the time being. Two other provisions might, with luck, be implemented: (1) diplomatic efforts could be “accelerated” (a vague rendering and a very low bar); and (2) international assistance to displaced persons could be increased (although “humanitarian access” is going to be a function of what happens on the ground).

The remaining provisions are not going to be implemented for the foreseeable future, and they should be understood as having more to do with political jockeying among the participants (particularly Russia and the United States) than with a serious commitment to change facts on the ground in Syria. There will be no ceasefire for many months and probably years; the country is going to remain de facto (albeit not de jure) divided (so it will remain “partitioned” in the non-formal sense); continued fighting will mean that the rights of all Syrians, particularly ethnic and religious minorities, will not be protected; whatever government is in power in Damascus is not going to exercise sovereignty over much of Syrian territory; there will be no meaningful “political process” until there is a military solution that enables it; there is zero chance that we are going to see free and fair national elections in the country for years; and accordingly the Syrian people will not decide Syria’s fate (I am not quite sure what this means in any case).

Of these harsh truths (or what I consider harsh truths), the most important is that there is no chance of a general ceasefire until we get a military balance that facilitates one, and there is no sign that we are going to get a stable military outcome anytime soon.

The fact is that the Syrian battlefield is extraordinarily complex and dynamic, with multiple combatants who have been fighting and killing each other in great numbers for a very time. (To get a feel for just how many groups are involved in the fighting, read the Institute for the Study of War report here.) There are occasional and ever-changing degrees of cooperation and coordination among the diverse rebel groups, but in general the opposition is made up of a great many more-or-less autonomous brigade-sized units (typically 100 to 1000 fighters). The loyalty of those fighters is primarily to their unit commander, who is usually someone who has risen through the ranks and acquired respect and authority by virtue of effectiveness on the battlefield. As a result, while there are occasions when local ceasefires are possible, the opposition is far too diverse and decentralized to be able to negotiate a ceasefire. (I should note that a Russian airstrike yesterday has reportedly disrupted a local ceasefire in the northwest of the country.)

Institute for the Study of War map of recent Russian airstrikes

Institute for the Study of War map of recent Russian airstrikes

The Kurds are something of an exception to this generalization about a lack of unified command among the opposition forces. It may also be that the recently-formed Kurdish Democratic Union Party can represent them politically and negotiate meaningfully on their behalf.

That is decidedly not the case for the numerous groups of Arab Sunni opposition forces, however, including ISIS, al-Nusra, and the other Islamist forces, as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the other more or less secular forces.

As ISIS was emerging as a key force on the Syrian battlefield over the course of 2013, commanders of various Islamist units had to decide whether to swear loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to al-Nusra (which al-Zawahiri decided at the time would be the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, rather than ISIS), or to both – or they could try to remain more or less independent. Most sided with ISIS, particularly non-Syrian units, and most of those doubtless still exist or have splintered or merged with other units, and as such continue to operate with considerable autonomy. Were the leadership of ISIS ever to agree to a ceasefire – itself highly unlikely – it cannot be assumed that its field commanders, many of whom are in effect professional jihadists, would stop fighting.

As for the FSA, consider that Russian state news agency Sputnik reported today that representatives from 28 FSA units will meet with Russian officials next week in Abu Dhabi. How likely is it that those 28 representatives are either going to agree among themselves about whether or how to cooperate with Moscow? And how likely is it that they can speak for the FSA as a whole, which is even more a confederation of autonomous forces than ISIS? Indeed, other sources claiming to represent affiliates of the FSA have denied the report that FSA representatives will be meeting with Russian officials. Nor is it the least likely that Moscow will be able to get most FSA units, which for the most part have been fighting the regime’s forces rather than ISIS, to change course and concentrate on defeating the Islamic State – that is something the United States was unable to accomplish with its now-abandoned “train and equip” program, and there is no reason to believe Moscow will be any more successful.


Topographical map of Syrian region

There are other factors as well that make a general ceasefire hard to imagine anytime soon. I am not aware of a single significant party to the conflict that has expressed a genuine interest in a broad ceasefire. Neither are there clear lines of demarcation or  geographical features separating the warring parties, other than perhaps the Euphrates, where the river separates ISIS and Kurdish forces in the north, or arguably the mountains running north to south that separate the Alawite majority regions in Latakia and Tartus provinces from the rest of the country. I should note, however, that the Syrian Kurds are pushing Washington to help them to cross the Euphrates and unify the two zones they control along the Turkish border, something the Turks are of course very opposed to. Moreover, before the war there were considerable non-Alawite populations in the Latakia and Tartus regions, and there continues to be considerable fighting in the Latakia-Idlib border region.

Finally, it is important to appreciate that even if we did get a ceasefire – as unlikely as that might be – the outcome would not be one that the U.S. and its coalition allies would find acceptable. There would be a regime rump state (with or without Assad), a very large zone controlled by ISIS (which is hardly likely to agree to a ceasefire), and a “rebel” zone controlled by a hodge-podge of groups, including al-Nusra but other jihadi groups as well, fighting for power in the rest of the country.

As for the current military situation, the regime, buoyed by Russian airstrikes, Hezbollah irregulars, and as many as 7,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops and volunteer militia, has launched offensives in the north around Aleppo (including a particular effort to relieve their forces at Kuweires airport), along the road between Homs and Hama, around Damascus, in the south in Qunaitra province, and in the border region of Latakia and Idlib provinces.

Doubtless the most important front right now, however, is the one in and around Aleppo, where regime forces and their allies have been trying to dislodge the rebel groups currently in control of the city while keeping ISIS from pushing into the eastern suburbs of the city. They have also been trying to relieve their troops at Kuweires Airport, which has been under siege for some two years.

Russian website SouthFront's map of the Syrian battlezone

Russian website SouthFront’s map of the Syrian battlezone

The regime’s forces on the Aleppo front are, however, at risk of being cut off from supply lines to the south, particularly the Khanaser to Ithriya highway, parts of which came under ISIS control last month. There have been reports recently that regime forces opened the highway, but if true it is unclear if they will be able to keep it open. Meanwhile, the road from Homs north has also come under attack.

Assuming the regime manages to keep its supply lines open and keeps ISIS from entering the city from the east, it will take a great deal of violence to retake the city itself. The number of civilians still in the city is unclear, but before the war Aleppo was Syria’s largest city, with a population of some 2.1 million, but of course a great many have fled. The recent surge in fighting in and around the city has led an additional 70,000 to 100,000 residents to leave, according to aid agencies, and more fighting will doubtless produce more displaced persons.

If the pro-regime Aleppo offensive does not bog down or collapse, then we are likely to see another bloody urban battle for Aleppo in the coming weeks and months. It is hard to believe, even with Russian airstrikes and assistance from Iranian and Hezbollah forces, that the city will fall easily or quickly to the Syrian army (something the Kremlin should keep in mind as it continues its bombing campaign in and around the city).

And then there are all the other important fronts in the war.

Given this extremely dynamic war zone, it’s not possible to predict with any confidence what the disposition of forces will be in, say, a year. But what can be said is that there is no prospect of a battlefield solution that will be conducive to a ceasefire anytime soon. Moreover, neither Russia nor the United States is going to find an easy exit ramp out of Syria for many months, if not for years.

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