US presidential transition adds turmoil to Syria diplomacy

Article Summary
As the Syrian regime makes rapid gains to retake rebel-held eastern Aleppo, renewed diplomatic efforts to try to broker a pause in the fighting remain uncertain.

WASHINGTON — Even as Western nations pleaded for a pause in the fighting in Aleppo to evacuate the wounded, a growing sense of confusion and uncertainty has settled on diplomatic efforts to try to ease the suffering in Syria, fueled by steady Syrian regime advances that saw it retake the old city of rebel-held eastern Aleppo on Dec. 7, as well as the US presidential transition.

Syrian rebel factions asked for a cease-fire in Aleppo Dec. 7, which the regime initially rejected, and were reportedly considering a previously rejected proposal to leave the city.

After days of on-again, off-again signaling between Moscow and Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Hamburg, Germany, Dec. 7 on a possible US-Russia deal for Aleppo, under which rebel fighters would agree to leave eastern Aleppo, enabling the wounded to be evacuated and humanitarian and medical aid to get in. But adding uncertainty to prospects for an 11th hour US-Russian deal to try to ease the suffering in Aleppo and possibly restart intra-Syrian talks is growing confidence by the Syrian regime that it can achieve an outright military victory in the 5½-year-old conflict, as well as the prospect of a new US administration that favors cooperating with Russia to fight the Islamic State (IS).

US President-elect Donald Trump has spoken frequently of his interest to work with Russia to fight IS, and he suggested he is inclined to cut US support for Syrian rebel groups that oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. By contrast, the outgoing Barack Obama administration, while avoiding direct escalation against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, has steadfastly refused to countenance cooperation with the Assad regime and has said it believes he lost the legitimacy to govern Syria given the tens of thousands of his citizens that his regime has killed in the civil war. The Pentagon, under Obama, has also fiercely resisted a now collapsed cease-fire deal, negotiated by Kerry and Lavrov, that called for joint US-Russian targeting of al-Qaeda-linked Syrian militants.

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Showing growing confidence at his fortunes, Assad, in an interview published Dec. 7, said defeating the rebels in Aleppo would be a major step toward reconquering the rest of the country.

Victory in Aleppo will not mean the end of the war but “a huge step toward this end,” Assad told Syria's Al-Watan newspaper. “The decision to liberate all of Syria, including Aleppo, has been taken.”

The State Department said Dec. 7 that the Syrian rebels, facing potential defeat in Aleppo, may be changing their position on whether to agree to leave the city. “I am not going to try to characterize their position, which I think is also changing, given the situation they are in,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists at a State Department press briefing, referring to the Syrian opposition.

“I think the Syrian moderate opposition is assessing the situation, which is indeed dire, and making their own decisions,” Toner said.

He added, “We are obviously looking for any credible effort that would ease the suffering in Aleppo and help bring humanitarian assistance to the population there."

Syrian armed opposition groups received a message via a US military joint operations center in Turkey on Dec. 5 conveying a proposal to leave the city, with guarantees for their safety, a Syrian opposition source, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. While they initially did not accept the terms, they may now be reconsidering.

“Most opposition groups continue to resist the idea of surrender, though they’re undoubtedly falling back day by day,” Charles Lister, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor by email Dec. 7. “Ultimately, they’re concerned with two things: the fate of the civilians in their midst, and in fighting as long as possible until they can consider some kind of withdrawal deal that saves face and allows them to fight another day, elsewhere.”

“Sporadic negotiations that have taken place so far in recent days have focused on the idea of a cease-fire giving space for aid access and a safe civilian evacuation,” Lister said. “Russia seemed interested in discussing these terms, provided JFS [Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the renamed, al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra] was withdrawn from the city, but it appears that Assad and Iran are determined to win this outright. This explains Moscow’s current position of demanding a total surrender of all armed groups, no longer limited to JFS.”

“With this in mind, it’s hard to imagine a major deal from being agreed until perhaps the last moment at which the armed opposition really has no chance of putting up any limited defense,” Lister said. “We’re approaching that point, but not there yet.”

The Syrian armed opposition “is also now insisting that civilians — and likely eventually armed groups — be given the right to evacuate or withdraw to Aleppo’s countryside, rather than Idlib,” Lister added. “There’s a strong sense that Idlib will be the next target of regime-Russian bombing. … Neither civilians nor armed groups in Aleppo city want to fall into that trap. I’d expect many of the mainstream groups in Aleppo right now are encouraging Turkey to push for their eventual withdrawal and inclusion in the Euphrates Shield operation. That’d give them a sense of continued credibility, legitimacy and protection.”

Kerry, speaking to reporters in Brussels Dec. 6, said the Syrian rebels had rejected a cease-fire at earlier points in the conflict when they were in a stronger position on the ground than they find themselves today. But he said even a Syrian regime victory in Aleppo would not end the civil war, and that ultimately a negotiated solution will be needed to end the conflict and help bring the support needed to rebuild Syria.

“When we assembled in Vienna a couple of years ago to begin the process of trying to create a political direction for trying to resolve the war, we brought everybody to the table … and we sought a cease-fire,” Kerry, speaking on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers meeting, told reporters in Brussels. “And let me make it clear that at that point in time Russia and Iran both supported a cease-fire when we were in Vienna. But the opposition would not buy into a cease-fire. … And from that day until today, there’s been a loss of territory and a loss of life way beyond what any of us wanted to see unfold.”

“So we’re not the fighters on the ground — they are,” Kerry said. “They have to make their choices. And the fact is that, most recently in discussions, there has been discussion of trying to move people out in order to save Aleppo. But until this moment, there has not been an agreement on how that would happen or how those people would move out or how they might be protected.”

“Now Russia says that Assad is prepared to come to the table,” Kerry said. “They say that’s part of their agreement that they would support him, that he has to engage in good faith in a negotiating process.”

“I do know this: Even if it did fall, Aleppo will not change the fundamental underlying complexity of this war,” Kerry said. “If Assad takes over Aleppo, is the war going to end? No. Will he have solved the political challenge of bringing people together to unite the country? No. Will many of the people who have been embittered as a consequence of what has gone on in Aleppo continue to fight and blow themselves up or put a car bomb in place or a suicide vest on? Yes, the war will continue. The violence will continue.”

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who had been planning to deliver a new political proposal on Syria to the UN Security Council on Dec. 8, is now expected to scale back his proposal, given the rapidly changing developments on the ground and in international capitals.

There are “too many pieces moving,” one diplomat working on Syria, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor.

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Found in: syrian war, russian influence in syria, john kerry, donald trump, diplomacy, bashar al-assad, aleppo cease-fire

Laura Rozen is Al-Monitor's diplomatic correspondent based in Washington, DC. She has written for Yahoo! News, Politico and Foreign Policy. On Twitter: @LRozen

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