America’s Syria Pivot

Almost six years after a nationwide uprising, the Syrian civil war continues to wage destruction, death and displacement. Recent estimates put the death count in Syria at 470,000, of which 50,000 are children. The United Nations estimates that more than half of Syria’s 22 million population are displaced, of which 2.5 million are 18 or younger.

The civil war is a melting pot of a repressive government, pro and anti-regime rebels, complicated by Russia, Turkey and Iran’s involvement. The biggest obstacle to a sustainable ceasefire is the inability for these three countries to negotiate and control their proxy factions. Russia, Turkey and Iran hold significant leverage over their factions on the ground, which could limit violence.

Unfortunately, the key dynamics which prevented the success of past ceasefires remain in place. Iranian-backed militias and the Russian backed regime historically pursued local, and not national ceasefires, which they achieved using persistent violence towards opposition areas. These actors then exploited the resulting ceasefires to pursue alternative advances. The reluctance of Russia and Iran to forego these advances was instrumental to the failure of the first Cessation of Hostilities in early 2016.

After a number of Syrian regime victories — largely because of Russian strategic and military support — Russia is now securing the regime and ending hostilities. Russia is eager to use this new peacemaker role to maintain leverage over negotiations. Turkey also seeks an end to hostilities. Its complete control over support routes to the Free Syrian Army, and other anti-regime rebel groups in northern Syria, has pressured them to follow Turkish instruction.

Contrastingly, Iran’s objective to protect its long-term interests in Syria — by maintaining strong proxy militias — prevents the cessation of hostilities in the context of Russian and Turkish aims. This is evident when observing Iran’s alleged refusal to ratify the December ceasefire, whereby Iran instructed its proxy, Hezbollah, to violate the ceasefire and continue fighting in the town of Wadi Barada, in rural Damascus.

Recent events from US President, Donald Trump, spells mixed results for a solution to the Syrian conflict.

Mr Trump’s executive order, signed on Friday 27 January, is not encouraging for those concerned with the displacement, humanitarian assistance, and a need for a peaceful alternative in Syria. Aside from the ban on refugee admissions from Syria (and six other countries), President Trump also requested a plan from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On the one hand, this illustrates a realist policy of self-interest, and disregards the significance of Syrian Internationally Displace Persons. On the other hand, it shows the inconsistency of US international relations, and ignores former president, Barrack Obama’s advice to arm Kurdish militias for their final assault of Raqqa — the capital of the IS caliphate in Syria.

Nevertheless, Mr Trump does profess to work with Russia on defeating ISIS. Not withstanding the Kremlin’s (albeit controversial) support for Trump throughout his election campaign, both President Vladimir Putin and Trump share a desire to defeat Sunni jihadism.

The two men had their first official phone call on Saturday 29 January, in which they discussed how the US and Russia could defeat IS in Syria. Considering the Syrian regime’s welcoming of Trump’s presidential victory, there may be a future opportunity for peaceful negotiations in Syria if the two superpowers cooperate on the matter.

From a humanitarian perspective, it’s clear that President Trump’s executive order is bad news for the Syrian refugee crisis. But only time will tell whether improved relations between Trump and Putin lead to ending Syria’s six year civil war.

Thomas Gray