The Syrian conflict, which long seemed interminable, has entered its final phase. It is far from over; fighting will probably drag on for another one or two years in various parts of the country (and the war against the Islamic State will certainly continue), political maneuvering between external powers will be complex and difficult to predict, and a formal negotiated settlement remains a remote prospect. But the shift in Turkey’s stance since last summer has set the Syrian opposition firmly on a trajectory that may no longer be reversed, even if Turkish policy were to change again. The opposition increasingly faces a stark choice: destruction or reincorporation within central state structures still headed by President Bashar al-Assad.
The two diplomatic tracks now underway reveal the path ahead. On the one hand, attention is currently focused on the talks due to convene in Geneva on February 20, 2017, but this was never the venue where a political settlement would be reached. Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the process launched by Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital Astana on January 23 should not be a substitute for the Geneva process, a position echoed by United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who added that “We [the UN] are the main player in regards to the political process.” But this is wishful thinking at best, as none of the external powers have it in their gift to extract a genuine power-sharing agreement from Assad.
The focus on consolidating a ceasefire is what makes the Astana process significant, on the other hand. Many have rightly argued that its Russian and Turkish sponsors have been unable to narrow the gap between the Syrian opposition and government on a political settlement, and also that they are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. But this misses the point. Astana signals a new trajectory in the conflict made possible by Turkey’s volte face since the abortive coup of July 2016, which has prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to defuse foreign policy crises in order to focus on challenges within his country’s borders. This means abandoning the effort to remove Assad from power, despite continuing rhetoric to that effect, and bending the Syrian opposition to Turkish domestic and foreign policy needs.
For the opposition, the Astana path leads inexorably to all-out confrontation in northwest Syria with the jihadist camp now assembled under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the new umbrella framework led by Jabhat Fath al-Sham, formerly known as Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Knowledgeable observers believe the balance of power on the ground has tipped in the latter’s favour, and so defeat will leave the non-jihadist opposition with a much-reduced pocket of territory adjoining the Turkish border and the Kurdish enclave in ‘Afrin. But refusing to go to war with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham would deprive it of Turkish and U.S. protection and support, making the opposition a target for the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
Bleak as this prospect is, what comes after is likely to be considerably harder. The Astana framework is evolving as a step-by-step process in which participants commit to the immediate task at hand, and in doing so take themselves further along a path that becomes progressively harder to reverse or abandon. If the Syrian opposition passes the initial test, it will come under even greater pressure to take the next logical steps on the path. These will lead necessarily towards reincorporation within Syrian state institutions, still headed by Assad. This is the real consequence of Turkey’s policy realignment, whether intended or not.
The outline of the two next steps is already visible. First is the idea of recognizing a single opposition-led governing council for Idlib province with Turkish backing, which Russia will be ready to deal with. Russia showed its interest in decentralization as a vehicle for a political solution with a proposal it circulated in March 2016. It has also stated its willingness since launching the Astana process to engage with local administrative councils in opposition areas for the purposes of enabling humanitarian assistance and economic reconstruction.
The creation of joint mechanisms is a key element in the Russian approach, which the Assad regime can accommodate. Assad is clearly opposed to any formal power-sharing agreement because this would recognize the opposition as a legitimate claimant, and undermine the regime’s own rationale for having fought a destructive war to deny its claim. But dealing with an opposition-led provincial council would pose far less a problem so long as it accepts reintegration into the state’s structure of local government, over which Assad remains sovereign. This, after all, has been the basis of hundreds of “reconciliation” agreements in which local communities loyal to the opposition have been allowed varying degrees of administrative autonomy, as well as some restoration of public services and funding.
Second, recurrent talk of forming a united “revolutionary national army” suggests a parallel process with regard to the reintegration of armed opposition groups in northwest Syria into state structures. Indeed, the presence of Jordanian observers at the second round of Astana talks on February 6 suggests that the armed opposition in the South may be brought in as well. According to a veteran opposition activist and analyst, Turkey has proposed that the armed groups will come under an eventual transitional government following a peace deal; on present trends such a government will only be formed under Assad.
The regime has already created frameworks that may be used to absorb a united opposition “army” while allowing it a measure of organizational autonomy: the new 4th and 5th army corps established since 2015 to absorb the National Defense Forces and other regime-sponsored militias and task forces. Opposition fighters have been allowed to remain in numerous local communities following “reconciliation,” or attached to the National Defense Forces in others; the model could be expanded to treat larger opposition formations as a provincial guard. The creation of a new army division tied specifically to Aleppo on January 22 points to the additional possibility of turning opposition forces in the northwest and South into similar, geographically-defined army units.
The details of this broad scenario may diverge, and many things may disrupt it. The armed opposition might lose a confrontation with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and the regime may exploit infighting to advance into Idlib province. This will be an acid test of the nature and strength of any understanding brokered by Russia and Turkey. But even in the best of circumstances, the opposition will find itself repeatedly corralled into an ever-diminishing political, military, and territorial space, losing influence and leverage as it does so, without having any assured outcomes in return.
The final phase of the Syrian conflict may be protracted, but options for the opposition are narrowing at an accelerating pace. One opposition think-tank has bravely insisted that “nobody [meaning Turkey] can impose on the opposition an unfair settlement it does not want,” but another concluded more realistically that the opposition is “all but strategically defeated.” The only possible consolation is that a genuinely broad political opposition, grassroots social activism, and new cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic coalitions cannot revive without an end to the armed conflict. How this may unfold is hard to predict or guarantee, but it is fast emerging the only hope for future change in Syria.