|#1523||2335||February 18, 2016||By Sameer Mallya|
The pause in the Syrian peace talks in Geneva was attributed primarily to the rapid changes in ground situation in the country. Battlefield realities have thus prevailed as an important variable for any viable gains on the negotiation table than mere power politics. The article aims to cover the implications of the current offensive on the future outcomes of the peace talks with special focus on role of Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The current offensive aimed for and has succeeded in achieving certain tactical, operational and strategic goals.
At the tactical level, the fall of Salma, Rabia and Rawda, Brigade 82 camp and Al Hash hilletc, in and around Aleppo has significantly altered the power balance in favour of government forces. The carpet bombing by the Russian air force has obliterated the rebel defences, which the Syrian ground forces had not been able to overcome in its previous offensives since 2012.
Operational Goals and Gains
At the operational level the aim of the major offensive is to cut off the rebels from their reinforcement and logistical support base along the Aleppo-Gaziantep highway in Turkey. A success here will significantly help future operations in the provinces of Idlib and Hama as Aleppo will be used as a spring board for these operations. Simultaneously it will also ensure the security of the Alawite heartland and Russian bases in Tartus and Latakia.
Strategic Goals and Gains
The speculation of a Russian proposal to hold peace talks in March is with a precondition: attack on terrorists will not cease. This sufficiently proves that Moscow will continue with its assaults till the major towns and cities in western Syria are freed of rebel control. If the talks proceed as planned, the Syrian government will be bargaining from a position of strength. Further, by deployment of state-of-the-art weapons platforms like the advanced Su 35’s jets and S 400 air defence systems in northern Syria, Russia intends to deter Turkey and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE from entering the conflict. It thus indefinitely postpones Assad’s removal from power.
The Turkish Threat Perceptions and Response
Despite the claims of Russian provocations to draw the Turks into the Syrian conflict, NATO’s security guarantees will ensure security for Ankara, a member of the alliance. Russia does not present a direct threat to Turkey as long as it refrains from military intervention in Syria.
Turkish concerns in the region and the conflict,however,primarily revolve around two critical areas.
Possible Turkish Response
With the Russian military and US diplomatic pressure, Turkish options of retaliation are relatively limited. If Washington continues to support the Kurdish fighters, Turkey can stop providing logistical support to the US-backed anti- Assad rebel forces. This may make the US operations in Syria difficult. Ankara thus has some leverage, which it may not shy away from, to prevent the US from supporting the Kurdish militias. It can pressurise the US to support its militarily under a coalition of regional powers who have expressed willingness to contribute troops, instead of continuing to engage the rebels, a move that has so far failed to produce the desired results. This will enable it to deal with Russia both military as well as diplomatically.
Diplomatically, Turkey can also threaten EU members by allowing passage of refugees to Europe. On the other hand it could seal its borders with Syria, preventing fleeing refugees from entering the country and adding to the humanitarian crisis that is already unfolding.
Fallacy of Saudi Anti-terror Coalitionin the Region
The Saudi attempt to form a regional and an Islamic coalition has been an abject disappointment. It has significantly tarnished the Saudi credibility and raised questions about its regional influence. The recent declaration by Saudi Arabia and UAE of their willingness to contribute troops for the coalition against the IS has been the latest development and is fraught with challenges.
Politically it is anybody’s guess that the current deployment of forces is aimed at coaxing Russia to tone down its offensive and provide the rebel factions the support to resuscitate and stabilise.
Legally, any intervention in the country without the consent of the Syrian government will be a case of violation of its sovereignty. Secondly, all the members have refused to take unilateral actions and expect the US to lead the coalition. Washington at this juncture is unwilling to send ground troops to Syria and is content with aerial bombardments and supporting Kurdish and rebel forces to fight against the ISIS overtly and the Assad regime covertly.
Militarily, any coalition that is formed risks confronting the Russian and Syrian government forces. In addition to this Saudi and other Arab forces will find it difficult to manage the logistics to support the operations as there is no common border between them and Syria. It thus will have to rely on Jordan or Iraq for ferrying troops and equipment or fly equipment into Turkey. The likelihood of support by Jordan and Iraq and risk confrontation with Russia is slim and the costs of the latter option will significantly jack up the price of any campaign. In addition to this the absence of a clearly defined mandate and most importantly a clear exit strategy makes it even more unviable.
To conclude it can be said that the Russian and Syrian offensive will enter a phase of consolidation after the successes in Aleppo. This success will provide the Syrian government a much better position to bargain at the negotiation table. The demanding power of the rebels on the other hand has thus been significantly curtailed. Turkey may pressurise the US by temporarily sealing its border, transferring the refugees to Europe or in the worst case scenario, by targeting the Kurdish forces close to is borders and risk a confrontation with Russia. The idea of a coalition comprised of regional players and led by US is fraught with difficulties and is unlikely to make any significant difference in the course of Syrian war in the next few months to come.
There appears little hope to derive any significant gains from the rescheduled peace talks, but even if they progress, the increasing accommodation of the US towards the Russian viewpoint on the future of Assad and the conflict in Syria may thus have an outside chance to see the peace process make some progress in the future instead of being an abject failure.
Views expressed by the Author are personal. Author is a Research Assistant at CLAWS.
 Assad regime gains in Aleppo alters balance of power in Northern Syria http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/assad-regime-gains-aleppo-alter-balance-power-northern-syria (Accessed on 10th Feb 2016)
 Is Syrian regime’s seizure of Sheikh Miskin a tipping point? http://www.almonitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/syria-regime-regain-control-sheikh-miskin.html (Accessed on 11th Feb 2016)
 Syrian Army, Hezbollah cut of militants main supply route from Turkey http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13941118000402 (Accessed on 11th Feb 2016)
 Kurdish forces said to take airbase near Turkish borderhttp://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0VK0E8 (Accessed on 11th Feb 2016)
 Syria crisis ECHO factsheet http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf (Accessed on 11th Feb 2016)