Russia, Iran, and Turkey are shutting the U.S. out of the Syrian peace process
Russia, Turkey and Iran’s announcement on Tuesday of their intention to broker a solution to Syria’s war without American involvement reflects Washington’s increasingly marginalized role in the crisis. But analysts said that while the new alignment reflects a renewed determination from the conflict’s power-brokers to resolve the conflict, it’s unclear if they will get any closer to ending Syria’s suffering.
The recently-formed troika issued a declaration on Tuesday setting out the principles of a potential peace agreement. Meetings between their foreign and defense ministers took place despite the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in Ankara a day earlier, and come after the three countries recently worked together to broker a cease-fire in Aleppo.
“Iran, Russia and Turkey express their readiness to facilitate and become the guarantors of the prospective agreement, being negotiated, between the Syrian Government and the opposition,” read the joint statement released by the three foreign ministers, inviting other countries with influence on the ground to do the same.
The agreement positions the three countries as critical power brokers in Syria’s future — and all but assures Syrian President Bashar Assad will factor into the fractured country’s future, despite earlier statements by the U.S. and Turkey that he had to go, said analysts of the conflict.
“It reflects some quite fundamental changes that are going on, and shows how the balance has shifted,” David Butter, an associate fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, told VICE News.
“They’re commanding the Syrian agenda – there’s no meaningful input from the United States or Europe.”
What does the declaration say?
The so-called Moscow Declaration seeks to expand on the recent Turkey-Russia-brokered cease-fire in Aleppo, which was extended at Iran’s late insistence to include evacuations of the wounded from two pro-government villages in Idlib province besieged by rebels.
It also calls for “unhindered humanitarian assistance and free movement of civilians throughout the country.” Allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses have regularly been leveled at Assad and his backers throughout the conflict – including for the targeting of civilian neighborhoods and hospitals, and abuses in detention centers – as well as at opposition groups.
The statement said that the three countries had determined that there was no military solution to the conflict, and agreed to be guarantors of any prospective agreement between the Assad regime and the opposition.
All parties insisted they would continue in their fight against the Islamic State group and the proscribed terrorist group al-Nusra, recently renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Assad’s commitment to fighting IS has been questioned, however, with the Sunni terror group recently winning back the town of Palmyra after Syrian allied forces rerouted their resources toward Aleppo.
The troika identified Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, as a potential location for future peace talks.
What does it say about the U.S.’s role in Syria?
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Moscow talks was who wasn’t in attendance. Russia and the U.S. have jointly led previous diplomatic efforts to broker peace in Syria, through U.N.-backed talks in Geneva. But the U.S. was not invited to Tuesday’s talks, which were conducted without U.N. involvement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that the sporadic Geneva talks had been unable to translate into changes on the ground, and that the three countries behind the Moscow Declaration were best equipped to push for a resolution, Reuters reported. He said the future talks would be carried out in complement to Geneva.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was explicit about the shortcomings of earlier talks. “All previous attempts by the United States and its partners to agree on coordinated actions were doomed to failure,” he told reporters.
“None of them wielded real influence over the situation on the ground.”
Russia and Iran are Assad’s key military backers, with Russian air power in particular credited with turning the tide in favor of Assad and enabling him to retake Aleppo — a once unthinkable outcome. Turkey, which has sought Assad’s removal and supported various rebel groups fighting him, also has ground troops in northern Syria engaged in fighting Kurdish groups and the Islamic State group.
The U.S., which has intermittently supported moderate rebels and continues to fight IS in Syria and Iraq, pushed back at suggestions that the latest developments reflect its shrinking influence in the conflict.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing Tuesday that Kerry “doesn’t see this as a snub at all.”
“He sees it as another multilateral effort to try to get a lasting peace in Syria and he welcomes any progress towards that,” he said.
But Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute, told VICE News that the new troika reflected that the U.S. was now “out of the room” when it came to wielding influence in Syria.
“No one believes President Obama on anything to do with his Syria policy any more,” he said. “Unless you’re willing to get militarily involved in the crisis, your ability to shape things is very limited.”
Why is this happening now?
With Assad on the brink of a critical victory in Aleppo that would bring the last of Syria’s five major cities under his control, Tabler said that Syria’s backers may be looking for a way to draw the conflict to an end, aware that the regime was running thin on manpower.
“Its ability to go on the offensive is limited after Aleppo. That’s a hard military reality,” he said.
For Assad to win outright on the battlefield would require both Russia and Iran to increase their military commitment substantially, said Butter. He questioned if either ally were willing to do that.
Tabler said that Turkey, alarmed at the ongoing catastrophe that has sent millions of refugees across the border and weathering attacks by Kurdish and Islamic State militants at home, was also eager to end the conflict. “The Turks are obviously very concerned about the trajectory of this conflict, and they should be,” he said.
While Ankara had initially sought to remove Assad, its goals have shifted to thwarting Kurdish aspirations along the Turkey’s southern border – although it likely “still wouldn’t countenance an all-out Assad win,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told VICE News.
Frustrated by the policies of Washington, its NATO ally, in the conflict – particularly its support for Kurdish YPG forces in the fight against IS – and the inability of the Geneva talks to translate to changes on the ground, it had turned to Russia, a more influential broker on the battlefield, in search of a solution.
Is a solution on the way?
Like previous efforts to find a deal, the Moscow Declaration acknowledges that a political solution will be the only answer in Syria. The obstacles to such a settlement remain unchanged.
“The problem is that the rebels who control two-thirds of Syrian territory don’t want Assad as their president, and the people in the remaining third only want Assad,” said Tabler.
“You have to give everyone something and until now, Assad has been very rigid and the rebels have been very rigid, so I don’t know how you square that.”
He said any negotiations led by the group would likely reflect a four-point initiative for a Syrian peace process previously presented by Iran to the U.N., which crucially referred to a national unity government – including the regime – rather than the transition government discussed in previous Geneva talks.
He said the regime momentum in the conflict meant Assad was now likely to remain in power in some capacity. But he said he did not believe any political solution would allow Assad to hold on to the entire country.
O’Hanlon was skeptical that the new group could bring about a solution, and said any strategy would need the involvement of the Gulf states, Jordan and the U.S. to succeed.
The talks would also need to make concessions, such as self-governance or autonomy, to groups such as the Sunnis and Kurds if there was to be any hope of lasting stability, he said. “This group probably isn’t thinking in those terms.”