Call it a pop-up alliance. After spending much of this year berating each other after Turkey shot down a Russian jet over the Syrian-Turkish border, the two governments are suddenly the “honest brokers” of a ceasefire in Syria – one that is designed to lead to political negotiations. The United States, which has long championed the stuttering diplomatic process on resolving the Syrian conflict, is nowhere to be seen.
The ceasefire – negotiated between Russia, Turkey and the Syrian government as well as Iran and Syrian rebel groups supported by Turkey – explicitly excludes factions deemed by the United Nations Security Council as “terrorists.” This rules out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that used to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the ceasefire was only the first step, with other documents signed on enforcing the truce and beginning peace talks. The Syrian military promised to cease operations nationwide at midnight Thursday.
Here’s how the deal looks.
Russia, Turkey in driving seat
Russian and Turkey are now driving what had been a UN-led political process.
Each is responsible for bringing its own allies into the process: the Russians will bring the Assad regime on board and the Turks as many moderate factions as they can coax or cajole. Both sides envisage a rapid timeline, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry saying the Assad regime and opposition would meet soon in Kazakhstan, according to Turkish state media.
Plenty can still go wrong, and recent history gives little cause for optimism.
Putin acknowledged that “all the agreements reached are very fragile.” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu said Thursday that details on how to monitor the ceasefire and apply sanctions against those who breached it were still being worked out. And he insisted there would be no direct negotiations between Turkey and the Syrian government.
But the intent is clear: peel off moderate rebel groups from the tacit alliances they have formed with radical Islamist groups in parts of Syria. Then crush the militant groups excluded from the process. And this is where, inevitably, things get complicated.
The Russian Defense Ministry said influential Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam have signed up to the process. But the Syrian army has asserted that groups linked to Fateh al-Sham, of which Ahrar al-Sham has been the most prominent, will be excluded from the deal.
One source in Ahrar al-Sham, which receives extensive support from Turkey, acknowledged that it is involved in the negotiations. But late Thursday the group said on its Twitter feed that it “has reservations about the proposed agreement” and had not yet signed. Its ultimate decision will be important. If Ahrar does sign up, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be isolated and vulnerable.
Obama administration ignored
The timing of the deal is critical. The Russian-Turkish entente has exploited the political transition in Washington, ignoring the Obama administration in its dying days and betting that the Trump administration will accept a process already under way.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already issued the invitation.
“I would like to express the hope that as soon as the administration of Donald Trump takes office, they will also be able to join these efforts,” he said during a meeting with Putin in Moscow.