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Hope for Syria: Don't hold your breath

As Russia and Turkey establish a peace initiative for Syria, there are lessons to be learned from previous failed ceasefires

As a new ceasefire takes effect in Syria, with peace talks planned for some time next month, one cannot help but have a sense of deja vu.

After all, this is the third ceasefire agreement this year alone, an indication of how precarious and short-lived they are.

Despite the brokers and key participants stressing the significance of the current ceasefire (much like its predecessors), and reports of a general lull in fighting, clashes have still taken place – including, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "fierce clashes" in Hama province between rebel and regime forces. At the time of writing, we are not even half way through the first day of the ceasefire.

The regime is likely to repeat its negotiating tactic of limiting discussion to issues of security and 'terrorism,' rather than an overall settlement

Like its predecessors, this truce is being described – incorrectly – as nationwide.

The Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdish YPG are excluded, and between them they hold swaths of territory in northern, eastern and central Syria.

There is disagreement over whether Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front) is excluded. The regime says it is, as are "groups linked to them," but rebel officials say otherwise. As Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is one of the most powerful rebel groups, this is no small point of contention.

In addition, Middle East Eye reported that Turkey, which brokered the ceasefire in partnership with Russia, "has made contradictory statements about the groups that can still be attacked".

Meanwhile, Moscow says any rebel groups that have not signed the deal will be considered "terrorists"; in other words, fair game.

The problem, as Russia is fully aware, is that rebel forces are either intertwined or in close proximity to each other, often in confined areas, making it near-impossible to separate them.

As such, attacking groups that have not signed the deal could well end up hitting those that have.

So far not so good, and it is unlikely to get much better. Even if the ceasefire manages to hold – a big if – the proposed talks in the Kazakh capital Astana will face the same stumbling blocks that have torpedoed previous negotiations.

IS and JFS exclusion

Powerful ground forces that are excluded from the ceasefire deal – IS, the YPG, most likely Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and perhaps other groups – will also be excluded from the talks (these same groups were excluded from previous negotiations).

This makes an agreement harder to reach because they have no reason to play ball and are likely to actively play spoiler if they see a potential deal without their involvement as detrimental to their hard-fought positions.

The YPG and its allies are pressing on with their own plans regardless.

The day before the ceasefire began, they announced their approval of a blueprint for a system of federal government in northern Syria, reaffirming their plans for autonomy in areas under their control – autonomy that is opposed by both the regime and the opposition.

Rebel groups, woefully divided for most of the conflict, may not form or maintain a united diplomatic front.

The powerful Ahrar al-Sham condemned the last round of talks in April this year, and previously withdrew from a meeting in Riyadh that led to the creation of the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), which represented the opposition at the talks.

Assad’s fate

The regime is likely to repeat its negotiating tactic of limiting discussion to issues of security and "terrorism," rather than an overall settlement.

This leads to the biggest stumbling block of all: the fate of Bashar al-Assad.

The opposition says there can be no resolution to the conflict without his departure, if not immediately then during a transition period.

However, the regime has consistently said his fate is not up for discussion. Neither party has indicated a shift in their positions.

Some may see a weakened opposition as potentially more malleable on this issue.

However, any fundamental change in its position would cause massive internal divisions that would cripple its position on the ground as well as at the negotiating table.

It could also cause tensions with its Gulf allies, whose support is more important than ever given Ankara’s thaw with Moscow, and US President-elect Donald Trump's vow to stop supporting Syrian rebels.

For obvious reasons, the HNC would be keen to avoid these potential ruptures. In any case, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) reiterated on the first day of the ceasefire that Assad would have no place in Syria’s future.

Assad, however, has repeatedly vowed to retake the whole country.

He is emboldened by the recent capture of east Aleppo and a string of other battlefield victories this year, as well as by the apparent softening of Turkey's stance on the conflict, and Trump's incoming presidency.

With his position now arguably at its most secure since the revolution against him began, Assad is likely to be as belligerent as ever, if not more so, because he sees no compelling reason to make concessions.

As he has done before, he may intend to use the ceasefire and talks as a pretext for another military onslaught following their failure.

UN involvement

What seemed to initially differentiate the upcoming talks from their predecessors was the exclusion of the US and the UN.

We are watching the same heads butting the same wall in the same way and hoping that this time it will come tumbling down

However, it has since been reported that the UN will be involved, and with Trump being inaugurated in a few weeks, Turkish and Russian opposition to US involvement will likely dissipate.

It seems, then, that the difference between the Turkish-Russian initiative and the Geneva process is simply the venue.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the upcoming talks, he said they "won’t compete" with the UN-brokered talks in Geneva "but will complement them". More than that, Ankara and Moscow are actually mimicking the Geneva process.

This is most unfortunate given its obvious flaws, and ironic given Turkish and Russian awareness of those flaws, and the integral roles they played in Geneva.

As such, no lessons seem to have been learned. We are watching the same heads butting the same wall in the same way, and hoping that this time, somehow, it will come tumbling down.

Do not hold your breath.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, Al Jazeera English, The National, and The Middle East magazine. In 2008, he received an award from the International Media Council "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting" on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 23rd World Energy Congress in Istanbul, 10 October, 2016 (AFP)

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