Analysis

Russia Muscles in on De-escalation Zones

Asaad Hanna, October 2017

Through imposing conditions on armed opposition groups, Russia is working to strengthen and transform its presence in Syria, moving from a military posture to that of a mediator driving towards a solution.

While this process of consolidation began with the Astana meetings between the military opposition and the Syrian regime, bilateral agreements are being reached separately in different parts of Syria, indicative of the Russians’ readiness to reverse any agreement that is signed in favour of an alternative that achieves their greater interests. But at the same time, the dynamics on the ground challenge the viability of any negotiated agreements.

The road from Astana

Almost a year after the start of the Astana talks, a ceasefire agreement was reached in four areas of Syria, backed by Russian, Turkish, and later Iranian guarantees. These areas, known as ‘de-escalation zones’, included the city of Idlib and the surrounding countryside, the northern Homs countryside, Eastern Ghouta, and parts of Deraa.

But since then, Russia has taken new steps to establish bilateral agreements directly with armed opposition groups on the ground in the same areas where the Astana agreements were announced. These agreements exclude any of the groups’ foreign-based leadership and are guaranteed by Russia alone.

These developments indicate that there is a Russian policy to become a unitary player on the Syrian issue, by excluding existing international actors such as Turkey and Iran. Events in southern Syria are an example of this, as Russia signed an agreement with the Southern Front to keep Iranian-backed militias away from Deraa. The Russians also made sure that the Iranians were not allowed to take control of eastern Aleppo or Hayy’ al-Waer in Homs and worked to replace them with Chechen police.

Through its statements and actions, Russia seems intent on suggesting that if it is not satisfied with the terms of the agreement established under the Astana framework, it will resort to outside agreements, thus ensuring Russia’s desired result is implemented in all cases. Take Eastern Ghouta’s inclusion in the Astana de-escalation agreement for example. Russian attacks continued on the areas until Jaish al-Islam signed an agreement directly with the Russians. Then attacks continued on areas where Failaq al-Rahman was present when the faction objected to several details of the agreement, including its listing of Cairo as the signing place, and refused to sign. But then it signed an agreement with Russia on 18 August in Geneva, after which Eastern Ghouta quietly entered into a truce, although the siege of Ghouta persists.

The same thing happened in the northern Homs countryside. After the de-escalation agreement was announced in Astana, it was revoked and a new agreement was established through a meeting between the Russians and Jaish al-Tawhid directly in Cairo. Similarly, in Idlib, which was also covered by the Astana agreements, the Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Sergey Rudskoy, stated that they are seeking to bring the city into bilateral agreements for a ceasefire.

These agreements were established based on a unilateral guarantee – a Russian guarantee – without an international guarantor for the opposition, and without grounding them in international legal mechanisms such as the UN Security Council. Thus, the fate of these agreements will be determined by a Russian desire to implement them. Should Russia wish to annul them, it is unrestrained. Just as the de-escalation agreements have been ignored and replaced with local agreements, these bilateral agreements can also be revoked in favour of other agreements.

Although the Astana agreements initially garnered international support and were considered a step on the path to calm and an end to fighting in Syria, many violations were recorded in the early hours of implementation. Russia has ended up being the guarantor of ceasefire agreements while at the same time being the one violating them and bombing areas included in these agreements. These agreements should consequently be understood as temporary understandings that bring calm to the Syrian regime side allied with Russia in exchange for non-military gains for the opposition such as the release of detainees or a stop to shelling to allow aid to enter besieged areas.

Further problems

De-escalation zones are also confronted with competition and conflict between the military factions who are still looking for a foothold in any would-be international agreement, to ensure they are safe under the agreement and to guarantee their legitimacy through international dealings. Likewise, they will try to obstruct any agreement that takes place without their participation.

This is what happened after Jaish al-Tawhid (which does not have any leadership abroad) signed an agreement with the Russians in Cairo concerning de-escalation zones in the northern Homs countryside. Ahrar al-Sham and other factions denounced the agreement and tried to move it to Turkey so that they might play a role in it in lieu of Jaish al-Tawhid. According to one of the supervisors of the agreement with the Russians, Ahrar al-Sham allocated $200,000 to dismantle the Cairo agreement and move it to Turkey. While they did not succeed in doing so, they did manage to move the talks from Cairo to a popular committee inside Syria in order to meet with the Russians and renegotiate the terms of the Cairo agreement under different conditions.

There are also fears of Iranian meddling to dismantle agreements in order to preserve their positions and plans for an increased Iranian presence in Syria, guaranteeing access from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria and strengthening the arm of Iranian militias in the region. The Iranians will not accept Russia taking their place in Syria so easily. Should the Russians seriously begin efforts to stabilize the parties to the conflict in Syria, Iranian militias are expected to attack opposition areas, prompting the opposition to respond and destroying the ceasefire.

When the Russians blocked Shia militias from entering Hayy’ al-Waer, the militias began to threaten and intimidate the civilians and fighters leaving al-Waer. Later they planted mines on the road used by the sixth batch of civilians leaving al-Waer, delaying their arrival to Zogra camp in Jarablus and forcing Russian forces to dismantle the mines and secure the road. Similarly, when Russia consolidated a strip of Shia villages in northern Homs to prevent any attacks from being launched on the region, the action provoked Iranian militias, who fired rockets and mortars into nearby opposition controlled areas. This was because the inability to launch attacks to control opposition territory reduces the Iranian role within regime controlled areas.

Extremist organizations also play a negative role in the de-escalation zones because they are always referred to as parties that must be fought, or at least to be dissolved or transferred to other areas to remove their presence within de-escalation zones. One of the terms of the de-escalation agreement in Eastern Ghouta was for Failaq al-Rahman to distance itself from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), with which it had a strong relationship.  In the northern Homs countryside, the agreement required the removal of HTS without specifying a destination for relocation.

Therefore, the factions endorsing de-escalation agreements are stuck between two alternatives – either violate the agreement and don’t confront HTS, or adhere to it and expel them (because experience has proven that HTS will not withdraw from any region voluntarily). It is therefore seriously expected that HTS will open battles with the Russians and the regime to stop implementation of the agreement or use the agreement as an excuse to confront signatory opposition factions and streamline its control over larger areas.

Shaping the future

With this new wave of local agreements, the Russians are attempting to transform their role from that of an aggressor, threatening the opposition’s existence, to the main party capable of ensuring calm. Such a change would contribute to Turkish marginalization, overshadowing Turkey’s role as a guarantor of the opposition in the Astana agreements, and side-line Iran. If they succeed – and with the Americans moving away and changing their priorities in the region – the Russians would be alone to shape the solution in Syria.