Russia brings about Syria peace process
By Simon Korner
The Russia-US peace deal on Syria – following Russia’s military intervention in support of the legitimate government – has become increasingly shaky, with intense fighting in and around Aleppo. IS and Al-Nusra (Al Qaeda) still control more than half of Syria’s territory, including the major oil dumps and pipeline, and are excluded from the ceasefire agreement.
The February 27th ceasefire involves 17 countries of the International Syria Support Group, and is backed by the Syrian government. Neither IS nor Al-Nusra is covered by the ceasefire. At the peace talks in Geneva, Russia called for elections – under UN auspices – to be held in areas of Syria under government and rebel control.
The ceasefire was made possible by the major advances of the Syrian army, supported by Russian bombing. The terrorist forces of Al-Nusra, under the umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah, are slowly being pushed out of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and the Syrian army is moving towards the Turkish border.
Over 400 towns have been retaken, mainly in western Syria. Many IS and Al-Nusra supply lines from Turkey have been cut. The Syrian army has also been gaining the upper hand in the south near the Jordanian border, and in Golan, where Israel has been supporting Al-Nusra forces.
But these government gains are facing stiff resistance – in early May, there was fierce fighting for control of the Aleppo town of Khan Touman.
In mid-March, Russia announced a partial withdrawal of its forces, leaving half of its planes in Syria, with the rest ready for deployment within a day’s notice. Russia’s Latakia airbase and naval base at Tartus remain in place.
John Kerry has admitted that Russia has been key to the peace initiative. “Without Russia's cooperation I'm not sure we would have been able to have achieved the agreement we have now, or at least get the humanitarian assistance in”.
Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall, a former MoD Middle East expert, likewise acknowledged Russia’s central role, noting that, “it is the Russians making the weather… That slightly worries me in a part of the world where the Americans have been the guarantors and the people who make the weather.”
This unease is reflected in the American media, much of which views the ceasefire as a dangerous sign of weakness by western forces. The New York Times (Feb 26) reported: “In the estimate of European and Israeli intelligence officials, but not the White House, the pause in fighting may have the unintended consequence of consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power over Syria for at least the next few years.”
Similarly, the Washington Post (Feb 26) criticised Obama for having chosen to “sue for peace on Moscow’s terms”. And Voice of America (May 5) reported: “Americans [particularly the military] … accept this ‘partnership’ only reluctantly and grudgingly.”
The US has not abandoned its long-term goal of ousting Assad. It has contingency plans to prevent a re-unified Syria under Assad. These involve setting up a ‘safe’ no-fly zone in northern Syria patrolled by US planes and backed by 15,000-30,000 US troops on the ground. This zone would allow rebel forces to re-group, protected from the Syrian airforce.
The Republicans, particularly Trump, are pressing hard for this option, as are hawks in the Obama administration and the Pentagon. The US has already spent over $1billion in the past year. As well as supplying weapons to the rebels, some 3,000 tons of weapons and ammunition have been delivered indirectly to Al-Nusra since December 2015 according to Jane’s Defence Weekly. The US is busy trying to rebrand Al-Nusra as a ‘moderate’ rebel group, thus including it in the ceasefire and shielding it from air attacks.
The ceasefire has infuriated regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, who want to fan the flames of conflict. The prospect of peace threatens their expansionist plans to unseat Assad, break up Syria and annex parts of its territory between them.
Turkey has been shelling the Kurdish YPG fighters – allied to the Kurdish PKK in Turkey – inside Syrian territory, and still supports IS and Al-Nusra. There are reports of Turkish ground troops dug in inside northern Syria, as well as airstrikes.
There are also signs that Turkey has plans to stoke up fighting in northern Lebanon with an arms shipment, including chemical weapons destined for Islamist fighters, intercepted in March. Fighting in northern Lebanon would threaten the Alawite areas of Syria around Tartus and Homs, which support Assad, as well as the main road to Damascus, cutting Hezbollah supply lines between Lebanon and Syria.
The Saudis have threatened invasion – though these plans are on hold, due in part to the tenuous peace talks and in part to the disquiet within the Saudi military over their Yemen campaign, which is going badly for them. Other Saudi plans, also on hold, include giving rebel groups anti-aircraft missiles “to change the balance of power on the ground.”
Meanwhile, Israel is continuing to support Al-Nusra as part of its strategy to annex the Golan Heights permanently. UN forces (UNDOF), supposed to oversee peace in the Golan, have withdrawn, giving Israel a free hand and Al-Nusra access to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, as Syrians are displaced from the Golan borderland.
The Syrian Kurds – led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing is the YPG – announced plans on March 17 to establish a federal region in northern Syria, though not to secede from Syria. The new federal region would be called Rojava.
The Kurds were excluded from the peace talks by Turkey – which regards the PYD as terrorists, linked to the PKK. A Syrian Kurd spokesman said that, as a result of this exclusion from deciding the future of Syria, “we see only one solution which is to declare the creation of [Kurdish] federation.”
The Syrian government stated in response that: “Drawing any lines between Syrians would be a great mistake,” stressing that the Syrian Kurds were an important part of the Syrian people.
The US is not currently supporting Rojavan federation – though it has been working with the Kurdish fighters. This is in contrast to its support for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, a pro-imperialist state-let whose leaders disapprove of the leftist Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG.
Overall, Russia’s intervention in Syria has changed the course of the war – and boosted Russia’s status in the region. If the ceasefire holds, it will further enhance Russian influence. But the temporary peace remains extremely fragile.
Meanwhile, the Syrian economy lies in ruins, with 50% unemployment, and 85% of Syrians living in poverty. Life expectancy has decreased from 70.5 years to 55.4 years between 2011 and 2015. Around 250,000 people have been killed in the war so far.
Britain’s contribution to this destruction has been its participation in the allied bombing campaign and the widespread use of drones – a weapon the British are investing in hugely, along with the French. Britain and France are fighting for a share of the spoils in a post-Assad Syria. Having a place at the top table means you get to decide the nature of the new colonial dispensation and borders.
Britain is also playing a central role in organising disinformation against Assad. It has spent £2.4million on co-ordinating the rebels’ PR campaign, producing press reports and fake video ‘evidence’ of government atrocities – such as the ‘airstrike’ on a refugee camp in early May in an area where no Russian sorties were recorded – which are then fed to the complicit western media.