Vicken Cheterian

Syria: Total War?

February was supposed to be the month for diplomacy in Syria. Instead, we have unforeseen military escalation. Neither the arrival of delegates to Geneva, nor the announcement of a “cease-fire” during the Security Summit in Munich succeeded in changing the tide. The war in Syria, that started when the regime of Bashar al-Asad decided a military solution to repress demands for political change, is now a total war with international implications. 

Militarily, the Syrian army supported by the Russian air-force, and pro-Iranian fighters from several countries, have made substantial gains in Latakya and Aleppo provinces. The military objective is clearly to cut the logistic lines between rebel held territories and Turkey – the main sponsor of Syrian opposition fighting groups. The Damascus regime could have used its military advantage to start negotiating in Geneva and demanding important concessions. Instead, it has decided to continue the war and the “security option”. President Asad, in an interview to AFP, made said that he was not going to stop the military attack against “terrorists” while negotiating; that he was going to re-conquer all of Syria, and that the war was going to be long.  

On the other side, Turkey-Saudi Arabia alliance has sent signals of possible ground intervention in Syria, naturally to “fight Daesh”. Turkey has also started on February 10 to intensively fire artillery shells to Kurdish areas controlled by YPG across its borders into Afrin. Turkish army has also reportedly shelled Syrian Army positions in Latakya province. Rebel sources have also declared that they had received GRAD missiles in large quantities, which has capabilities to fire at targets 20 km away. In return, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev declared that any ground intervention in Syria would lead to a long war.

While the situation remains very volatile on the ground, few quick remarks are necessary here: 

- Since Turkey shoot down the Russian military plane Su-24 in November last year, the two countries are very close to military confrontation. The continuous military operations in Aleppo’s northern countryside has, with 60 Russian airplane sorties on average per day in Syria, and direct involvement of Turkish military against Kurdish guerrillas and Syrian Army, dangerously increases the risk of major war.

-  Syrian President Asad remains firm in not engaging his opponents of Syrian nationality politically, and seeks a negotiated solution to the crisis that erupted in 2011. He has not changed from his firm position seeking to crush his internal competitors, although this policy that has been applied for five years now has largely failed.

-  The Syrian Army-Russian have targeted regions under the control of the “Free Syrian Army” a loosely associated fighting brigades that include various Islamist groups as well as others composed of renegade soldiers. But al-Qaeda associated al-Nusra areas in Idlib, or ISIS held areas to the east are not coming under attack. This will lead to weaken of those groups within the opposition that potentially can be a partner in a political solution, and strengthen the jihadi groups, thus making political compromise with them next to impossible. In other words, the current attack makes the military solution the only viable option.

-  The latest military advance of the Syrian Army is largely conditioned by massive Russian air support, and Iranian-led fighters (including Lebanese, Iraqi and militia fighters from other nationalities). The Syrian Army heavily suffers from lack of personnel. Various estimates put the size of Syrian Army as less than 100’000, down from a pre-war estimate of 350’000. The Syrian regime will not be able to hold the ground even if it conquers, except with the long term presence of foreign troops.

-  Turkish policies in Syria have largely failed, and Ankara shares part of the responsibility in the current disastrous situation in Syria. Ankara chose to support hard-line jihadi organizations, which has alienated Western countries and public opinion from supporting the Syrian opposition. Moreover, Erdogan administration chose a policy course in Syria and Iraq that went against the interests of its strategic partners in NATO. This included establishing links with al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra front, but also antagonising the Kurdish guerrillas of YPG – the major allies of the US in its fight against ISIS. Turkey also put a veto in the participation of Kurdish guerrillas in the diplomatic negotiations, whether in Riyadh or Geneva. The divergence between Ankara and its traditional American partner in Syria follows a similar divergence on Iraq at the moment of American invasion of that country in 2003.

-  Today, Ankara is dangerously alone as the military situation escalates in its southern borders. America seems to have abandoned Ankara in face of the Russian operations in northern Syria. Note that the American military announced it will withdrew its Patriot anti-air missile systems in August 2015, and completed the operation in October, while the Russian massive military intervention in Syria was revealed in September 2015. Turkey is entering uncharted political and military zone, as it cannot defy Russia without solid American support.

Last time Syrian parties gathered for peace talks during Geneva-2 was in January 2014. How long will the multiple parties fight now until they convene for the next peace talks? In the meanwhile, it is the Syrian defenceless civilian population paying the blood, and their suffering seems to have no end.