Nations weigh fate of Syria without locals
Assad shut out of talks
BEIRUT | Under different circumstances, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s capture of Aleppo would project an aura of invincibility. He has survived nearly six years of revolt.
Instead, Aleppo has become a “victory” that has underscored his dependence on outside powers.
Turkey, Iran and Russia have tilted recent events in his favor, and it is those three players — and perhaps the incoming Trump administration — that are now best placed to determine Syria’s endgame.
The three nations met in Moscow last week for talks on Syria that pointedly included no Syrians, indicating they prefer to pursue a grand bargain among great powers rather than a domestic settlement between the government and the opposition.
The warming of ties between Russia and Turkey, who back opposing sides of the civil war, may prove to be a game-changer, potentially helping to end a conflict that has confounded the world’s top diplomats for more than five years.
Their joint efforts on Syria — there is now talk of a nationwide cease-fire — reflect a desire to establish spheres of influence. Turkey might drop its support for rebels fighting Mr. Assad in exchange for freedom of movement in a border region where its troops are battling the Islamic State group and trying to curb the advance of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces.
Hassan Hassan, a Syrian analyst at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute, called the Moscow summit “a perfect example of how the Syria solution is now about a grand bargain whereby other countries negotiate on behalf of Syrians.”
Syria’s army was only able to win the battle of Aleppo with Russian support and the aid of thousands of Iran-backed militiamen from across the region. Turkey struck a deal with Russia to manage the rebels’ surrender when they were on the verge of total defeat.
Turkey was an early backer of the rebels, allowing them to retreat and rearm across its largely porous border. But as Syrian Kurdish forces — answerable neither to Mr. Assad nor to his opponents — have expanded their enclave along the border, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come to view them as a greater threat than his old adversary, Mr. Assad.
Turkey sees the main Syrian Kurdish faction as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its southwest. It has also grown increasingly concerned about Islamic State following a series of attacks. The Syrian Kurds are battling Islamic State, but Turkey describes both as “terrorists” who must be eliminated.
In August Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces poured across the border, and in the following weeks they drove Islamic State from its last strongholds along the frontier and halted the Kurdish advance.
With more than 5,000 forces inside Syria and a seat at the table, Turkey seems poised to establish a “sphere of influence” in northern Syria, according to Faysal Itani, an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
It will likely press the issue when it meets with Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan next month. The Syrian government and some conciliatory opposition groups will be there, but it’s unclear whether Syria’s main armed opposition will be invited.
The U.N. has meanwhile vowed to relaunch the long-defunct Geneva negotiations between the government and the rebels on Feb. 8. That process has repeatedly failed to produce tangible outcomes.