In recent weeks, observers of the Syrian conflict have shifted their attention to a presumptive attack on Idlib governorate by Russian and regime-aligned forces. The front- and back-stage negotiations happening between Syria’s tripartite suzerains Russia, Turkey, and Iran about the fate of Idlib have paralleled speculation about the future of Syrian reconstruction and the role that outside powers can play therein. These are radically different preoccupations than those of 2014, when the military situation on the ground lent itself to much more divergent paths than where we find ourselves today.
Between 2013 and 2015, most of us considered the Syrian conflict to be mired in a military and political stalemate. The military landscape fragmented and while most armed actors were strong enough to fight, they were not strong enough to seize, hold, and govern territory for extended periods. Territorial control was fluid and violence quickly metastasized as drivers of conflict expanded. The need for armed groups to materially reproduce incentivized violence to secure material resources, thus expanding the conflict’s war economies. Inter-armed group fighting proliferated and there were no longer clear distinctions between regime and rebel forces, as Kurdish, ISIS, jihadist, Free Syrian Army (FSA), and other groups emerged in the enabling conditions of conflict after which they often ended up fighting each other. The military stalemate was fueled by external interventions supporting all the armed actors. Increasingly, the conflict became internationalized, yet political efforts on the international stage through the United Nations to halt the violence were similarly mired in stalemate as the external intervening actors were committed to a military solution which came at the expense of serious political negotiations.
The Russian military intervention that began in September 2015 represents the beginning of the end of the stalemate as it has moved the conflict beyond stalemate and toward what I have called elsewhere an “authoritarian peace”. While accelerating Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe, the Russian intervention has paradoxically made politics possible. On the one hand, the military landscape fundamentally changed after September 2015 as more territory came under Russian and regime-aligned forces’ control, altering the dynamics of the conflict. On the other hand, these changing military realities made possible a Russian designed and led peace process, the Astana process, that peripheralized the United Nations and Western states that were politically committed to the United Nations-led Geneva process.
Why was the Russian military intervention so successful in breaking the stalemate? First, the intervention suffocated the ability of armed groups to materially and socially reproduce. The military attacks suffocated supply routes, first focusing on major highways and trade routes, then moving into more concentrated areas of rebel control. This coincided with destructive, indiscriminate attacks against areas of large armed group presence. Syrian territories were demarcated and attacked by Russian aerial and ground attacks that severely depleted armed groups and affected their recruitment and reproductive possibilities. But this did not occur throughout the country, simultaneously. Instead, the intervention began in pockets of territory and spread slowly to other areas of the country. Second, the intensity of the Russian intervention tilted the military balance in favor of the regime-aligned forces in immeasurable and, barring a similar intervention from another state, irreversible ways.
Third, the intervention accelerated existing models of local resolution in Syria while creating the conditions for new innovations to make “peace” and cleanse areas of civilian and armed elements. Local truces in Syria began early in the conflict as ways for armed groups to negotiate mobility, transfers, and trade between areas under competing control. They have today evolved into truces between regime and non-regime forces that represent the military strength of the former, and which effectively sanction the displacement of entire populations. The negotiations for these truces tend to follow a similar pattern that reflects the new military realities. They are not negotiated but mostly imposed. In all cases after 2015, the truces led to the disarmament (save for their pistols) and movement of armed fighters to Idlib. Civilians were often also forced out of their homes in these truces. For years now, then, these truces have concentrated Syria’s armed fighters into Idlib which today is the last major area outside of regime-aligned forces control. The other innovation emerged through the Astana process in the form of the de-escalation zones. These are zones of agreed upon truce. Non-regime forces are expected to maintain a position of non-violence in them. However, Russian and regime-aligned forces reserve the right to exercise violence against anyone or any community deemed recalcitrant thus deciding who is in and out of the de-escalation zone terms. These zones remain nominally peaceful for some, but that peace is underpinned by the continued presence and threat of violence by Russia and regime-aligned forces. Finally, these changing military realities created the conditions of possibility for a political process that brought together the conflict’s main external parties – Russia, Iran, and Turkey – into tripartite negotiation to manage the conflict at the expense of other intervening actors, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Western countries. The Astana process does not represent consensus among the international actors, but rather a mechanism to negotiate and determine Syria’s future. No such forum existed prior to the Russian intervention in 2015.
Any understanding of how the military and political stalemate was broken should not be confused for support of that process. Indeed, what the post-2015 trajectory of the conflict demonstrates is that the Syrian conflict is sufficiently internationalized to be out of the hands of Syrians themselves to decide their fate. As the conflict evolved after 2015 many more lives were lost, and the humanitarian catastrophe only intensified. The Astana talks may have made a political process and vision possible, but these have been largely unproductive in engaging, let alone addressing, many of the concerns Syrians have today. Nevertheless, as we shift our gaze from Syria’s past to its immediate future, a future in which Idlib and reconstruction are on the minds of most observers, we see that the Russian intervention in 2015 and its aftermath substantively altered the trajectory of the conflict, broke the military and political stalemate, and provided the foundations for the emergence of an authoritarian peace in Syria.
[Other roundtable submissions can be found here]