Russia's failure at Sochi means more war for Syria in 2018
The latest escalation in violence in Syria's Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday is a significant indicator of a new Russia-led policy, following the failure to achieve the goals set for the Sochi summit, that will put more emphasis on military realities in the absence of any future peace talks.
Wide-ranging political agreements with buy-in from all of Syria’s major local actors was Moscow's hope when it announced its plans for Syria talks in Sochi back in November.
Instead, the Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which finally occurred on 30 January in the Russian resort town, seems destined to join the ash heap of past Syria summits which have wholly failed to provide a resolution for the conflict.
Sochi had a number of lofty goals going in, including the creation of a "unified national army and government" and the first inclusion of Syria’s Kurds in a major international summit. It was also hoped that the opposition would accede to UN-supervised national elections, along with a timetable for these.
In the event, none of this occurred: the Kurdish PYD boycotted entirely, as did the opposition's Higher Negotiating Committee. The conference closed with UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announcing the forthcoming creation of a constitutional committee, a pittance of an outcome.
Sochi thus became the latest in a series of failed summits that have occurred almost since the Syrian conflict's outset.
A ninth round will occur, but the Geneva process is moribund, obsolete, and incapable of producing anything of note
The primary forum for Syria negotiations has been the Geneva process. Inaugurated in June 2012 following then-UN special envoy for Syria Kofi Annan's peace plan, its goal has been to establish a transitional body to hold elections under UN auspices.
The forum has continued regularly since then, with the last iteration occurring in November 2017.
Unfortunately, the Geneva process is little more than a formality at this point. It is also an anachronism, having been created at a point when it appeared almost certain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government would fall to the armed opposition.
The emergence of the Troika
Both the Syrian government and the opposition representatives have still never met face to face in Geneva, much less agreed on anything of substance.
The government's fortunes have since improved dramatically, and the common wisdom today is that Geneva largely continues to exist as the political costs of outright halting the talks outweigh those of continuing them.
A ninth round will occur, but the Geneva process is moribund, obsolete, and incapable of producing anything of note without substantial changes to its format or goals.
The other main diplomatic track for Syria, in Astana, Kazakhstan, offers at least some hope of progress. The first set of negotiations there, in January 2017, saw opposition and Syrian government officials sit at the same table for the first time, although little was accomplished beyond shouting.
With no new rounds of talks yet scheduled, Syria's next months will be focused on military realities, following just the latest in six years of diplomatic failures
Several more rounds in Astana saw the emergence of the troika of Russia, Turkey and Iran, who were able to agree on a landmark deal for Syria's rebel-held areas.
The four "de-escalation zones" established in May allowed for a theoretical reduction in violence, but in practice they have meant very little. Russia and the Syrian government have continued military action as they see fit, focusing especially heavily on Idlib, where a government offensive backed by Russian airpower continued through the Sochi congress.
Eastern Ghouta, the next largest opposition-controlled zone, has continuing to suffer a crippling siege while both the government and Russian bombing exacerbate a major humanitarian crisis just miles from central Damascus.
Calm has largely held in the other two zones, northern Homs and southwest Syria, due to a lack of resources and low prioritisation of regime forces to conduct military activity in these areas.
Another round of Astana talks is certain, but with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran engaged in a full-scale Idlib offensive it's hard to see what these discussions will provide beyond diplomatic window dressing to mask military realities.
The main common factor between these various negotiation tracks is that what little tangible progress has been achieved has occurred between international actors. There has been little buy-in and less diplomatic progress from Syrians themselves, a situation that seems unlikely to change given the vast gap between the opposition and the government.
The Syrian government has refused to make meaningful concessions for seven years, and it's unthinkable that they will start now.
Kurds' attendance at Sochi was precisely what was to set that conference apart from other initiatives
Neither Russia nor Iran has the means to induce them to do so. The opposition has usually insisted on Assad's departure as a precondition for face-to-face negotiations, an obvious non-starter.
The wild card is the Kurds, whose attendance at Sochi was precisely what was to set that conference apart from other initiatives. Intense Turkish opposition and military operations in Afrin precluded that, as it has for years, leaving little hope that Syria's Kurds will have the possibility to join international talks before more realities on the ground are hammered out.
Having failed to achieve tangible progress at Sochi, Moscow will instead be forced to rely on harder means of extending its influence in Syria. The primary vessel for this will likely be its North Caucasian military police. While Russia claims to have only three battalions of military police (about 1,500 personnel) in Syria at present, the true number is likely greater.
In January, Grand Mufti of Chechnya Salah-haji Mezhiev visited Syria for the third time, meeting with Chechen military police personnel in Aleppo, while other Chechen servicemen are stationed in Damascus, Palmyra, and Latakia.
With the Chechens only forming one of the three announced battalions, it's hard to think that one 500-man unit was deployed to so many locations. Russia and Turkey are also allegedly to deploy more peacekeepers deep into Idlib as operations there unfold.
A Turkish presidential spokesman said on 4 February that Russia and Turkey will establish 12 monitoring positions for the Idlib de-escalation zone, having already deployed five. With Moscow reliant on ground forces to control the situation, expect greater military police involvement.
What to expect of the next several months in Syria? It seems certain the government’s Idlib offensive will continue, grinding on until government forces encounter serious resistance, which could be tomorrow, or never.
So far the government troops have faced few problems in the province's southeast, but this could change near population centres.
The situation in Kurdish Afrin could also develop in any number of ways, largely outside of Moscow's control. With no new rounds of talks yet scheduled, Syria's next few months will be focused on military realities, following the latest in six years of diplomatic failures.