Trump’s failure to reveal policy on Syria adds to uncertainty over peace talks
Government in better position to strike deal but Turkey, Saudi Arabia want al-Assad out
Chief opposition negotiator Mohammad Alloush (right) of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) rebel group speaks with his colleague during Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, on February 16th. Photograph: Stanislav Filippov/AFP/Getty Images
Uncertainty continues to plague the UN effort to impose a ceasefire, deliver humanitarian aid and negotiate a political settlement in war-torn Syria.
Prospects had appeared to improve due to changes on the ground that had bolstered the Syrian government and weakened the political opposition and armed groups, putting them under pressure to reach a deal with Damascus.
The government is in a better position to make a deal than last April, when a previous attempt at peace negotiations stalled. The Syrian army has retaken eastern Aleppo, the last redoubt of the Western and Arab-backed armed opposition, and has extended its control over greater Damascus and other areas in the country through the surrender of armed elements and “reconciliation” with local people.
While stronger, the government, which rejects the removal of president Bashar al-Assad, is under pressure to reach a deal due to the need to provide “guns and butter” for the 80 per cent of Syrians now living under its rule. Electricity is more off than on in Damascus and fuel is in short supply, although water has been restored following the defeat of insurgents holding springs providing the capital’s supply.
As a result of loss of eastern Aleppo, once Syria’s second city, the western and Saudi-sponsored opposition and armed factions, including the Free Syrian Army, were expected to accept a political settlement leaving Assad in power for some time. However, the opposition and their backers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – do not want to negotiate from a position of weakness and insist on Assad’s removal.
The plague of uncertainty is due, partly, to the failure of the Trump administration in the US to set a policy on Syria. During and after his presidential election campaign Donald Trump said the US should co-operate with Moscow and its ally, Assad, to defeat the so-called Islamic State terror group, but Washington faces domestic and European opposition to this approach.
Meanwhile, the US Central Intelligence Agency has suspended the flow of arms and funds to “vetted” insurgent groups fighting al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria’s northern Idlib province, the main militant base. The CIA fears its aid could benefit Jabhat, which it regards as a terrorist organisation, and Islamic State, also known as Isis. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia and Qatar continue to arm and finance jihadi militias.
Infected by uncertainly generated by the Trump administration’s undefined stance, Turkey seems to be playing a double game.
Russia and Turkey had agreed to promote a ceasefire and press for a political solution which would not demand Assad’s removal. Moscow and Ankara sponsored negotiations in Astana, the Kazakh capital, between Damascus and insurgents, with the aim of ensuring adherence to a truce.
Co-operation was, however, disrupted when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met last week with Saudi King Salman. Turkey remains determined to oust Assad, and is courting both Moscow, his ally, and Riyadh, his enemy, thereby undermining the political process.
Turkey has also complicated the military picture in northern Syria by deploying Turkish tanks and troops to back Free Syrian Army units in the battle for the strategic town of al-Bab, and has threatened to march on Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, although US-supported mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces units have been dispatched by Washington to liberate Raqqa.
Fearing the emergence of a Kurdish autonomous area along its border with Syria, Turkey is determined to foil this plan, while Riyadh has proposed that Saudi troops occupy “liberated” Raqqa with the intention of preventing the Syrian government from reasserting its authority there.