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What it means that the U.S. is not part of the Syria cease-fire

December 29, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
There is a new cease-fire agreement in Syria, but this time without the U.S. at the negotiating table. Will it last when so many others have failed? William Brangham speaks with Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma about the symbolic significance of the move and what’s next for the rebels, the Assad regime and Syria.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: The Russians and Turks announced a cease-fire deal among some of the warring parties in Syria. It went into effect at midnight in Damascus.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Confirmation came from the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin:

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through translator): The agreements reached are, of course, fragile and need special attention. But this is a notable result of our joint work and efforts by our partners in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: One of those partners, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called it an historic chance.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through translator): We have an opportunity to stop the bloodshed in Syria with a political solution. We must not squander this chance.

MARGARET WARNER: Russia has been a critical backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey had pressed for his ouster. But they joined to work out this cease-fire and plans for future peace talks in Kazakstan.

The Russians say rebel groups numbering more than 60,000 fighters are taking part. They include the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

OSAMA ABU ZAID, Spokesman, Free Syrian Army (through translator): During the talks, the Russian government guaranteed to us that they will keep the Syrian regime forces and their allies under control.

MARGARET WARNER: Other groups are excluded, the Islamic State, which controls a swathe of Syria, the al-Qaida offshoot Jabhat Al-Fateh Al-Sham in the northwest, and the Kurdish militia YPG battling Islamic State’s forces in cooperation with the U.S.

Iran is also a major ally of the Assad government, and is expected to be involved in peace talks. Absent entirely from the negotiations, the United States. Three years of talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, produced a number of cease-fires, but they didn’t hold.

Instead, 15 months ago, Russia launched a fierce bombing campaign to bolster the Syrian regime. Earlier this month, the rebel stronghold in Eastern Aleppo finally fell.

Nonetheless, the State Department voiced support for the truce today, saying: “:Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives, and creates the conditions for political negotiations would be welcome.”

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said today the incoming Trump administration would be welcome to join the peace talks in Kazakstan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: William Brangham takes it from here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, will this cease-fire last, where so many others in the past have failed?

For that, I’m joined now via Skype from Tucson by Andrew Tabler, who’s a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Welcome to you both.

Joshua Landis, I would like to start with you first.

We have seen cease-fires come and we have seen cease-fires go. Are you at all confident that this one is going to last?

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: No, I’m not confident. This is really not about the cease-fire holding. It’s about Turkey being involved with Russia and Iran and essentially letting the rebels know that a new page has been turned, that Turkey cannot keep its — cannot keep its door open to the rebels, that it’s closing the door, and that they’re going to have to fend for themselves in negotiations with the Assad regime.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Andrew Tabler, take that up. Is it your sense that this is going to hold? Is this, as some have posited, that this might be the beginning of the end of the war in Syria?

ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I’m also skeptical. I think it’s impossible to tell.

I think it’s very interesting that, after the capture of Aleppo, suddenly, we’re in this situation. I agree it’s important that Turkey is involved and on this kind of level with the Russians and with the U.S. out of the room. That’s essentially new territory.

But what’s also interesting is by pausing now and going into diplomacy, I think it shows that the Russians are setting the table for President-elect Trump to become involved in some sort of diplomatic process.

And the diplomatic process is with Assad remaining, but large parts of the country being outside of his control and potentially, depending on how the talks go, in the hands of the rebels.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There is obviously a lot to unpack in there.

Joshua Landis, help us understand, for people who haven’t been following this all along, let’s just talk about, what’s Turkey’s role, its very complicated role in this fight, what has their role been so far?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, Turkey has been the crossroads.

The territory has a 500-mile border with Syria. And across that border has traveled almost all the arms, the money, the help, the fighters that are going into Syria to sustain this revolt against Assad. The Russians, the Syrians, the Iranians have been pressuring Turkey to shut the door on that cross-border traffic.

Turkey is beginning to turn away from support for the rebels. And that is partially because of Trump’s election, in which he said he would work with the Russians, and he turned his nose up at the rebels, saying, we don’t know who they are, and suggesting they’re worse than Assad.

And so this is an about-face. The fact that the United States is not at the table is very important, because it has allowed these talks to go forward without the U.S. And, in a sense, the U.S. has signaled to the rebels it’s not got their back, it’s not going to continue to shuttle and help arms get through to the rebels.

So this is a new day for the rebels, who have to think hard about what their future strategy is.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Andrew Tabler, let’s just continue with that. A certain number of rebel groups are part of the cease-fire agreement. Some of them, many others are not. What happens to those who are not at the peace talks now?

ANDREW TABLER: Those that are left out of the agreement would be subject to Russian aviation strikes, as well as regime airstrikes and also other kinds of operations.

So, those that sign on to it essentially go into the cease-fire, and Turkey guarantees the rebel factions will not attack from their side, and the Russians say that they will, as part of the agreement, get the regime to stop their attacks.

Of course, these things are harder to implement. It’s a potential way to tamp down the violence, at least in part of the country, but it will also allow Russia, the regime and also the United States to more fully target groups like ISIS and Jabhat Al-Fateh Al-Sham, the al-Qaida affiliate.

So, in that way, it could focus fire on extremist groups.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, Joshua, back to you. What happens now with — it looks like Assad is not going to be dislodged from power. He is going to have control of some substantial majority of his country going forward, barring some unforeseen development. What kind of a country does he inherit? What is his — what’s happening with him going forward?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, I think he’s determined to conquer all of the country.

And the United States is busy destroying ISIS, which owns, perhaps, 30 percent, 35 percent of the Syrian territory. And that will largely — that will most likely be inherited by Assad, who is standing by, waiting for the continued collapse of ISIS.

He will continue to go after the al-Qaida-dominated areas with Russian help and hope to scoop those up as well. Turkey has made a statement with Iran and Russia just the other day that everyone is to respect Syria’s sovereignty. Now, that is codeword for not dividing up Syria.

And that means that Assad will take back his country, I believe. There are people who believe this means the dividing up of Syria, that there will be a rebel territory, a Turkish territory, an Assad territory. I don’t believe that’s the case.

I think Russia is squarely on the side of Assad and is muscling Turkey to fall into line.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Andrew, what do you make of that? Are we looking at a divided Turkey or not — a divided Syria? Excuse me.

ANDREW TABLER: Well, I think, in that sense, Assad might be able to come back over his territory, but the timeline on that, I think, is near, due to manpower issues.

So, what we could have is the Russians saying, OK, Assad stays on, because there is not an alternative. Meanwhile, I think they are going to look for opportunities with the Turks. In the northern part of Syria, the Turks have carved out a de facto safe zone, they call it. That could be the base for support, rebel support from Turkey.

We will have to see if President-elect Donald Trump wants to jump on that. Last week, President-elect Trump said that he was going to build beautiful stations inside of Syria paid for by Gulf countries. It’s a big statement, but if you’re going to build them anywhere, it could be there. And that could be the basis for some kind of operation, ground operation against ISIS in the Eastern part of Syria.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Joshua, what do you make about that? The Trump administration is on its way into power. What do you think he will do once he’s handed stories morass?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, he said he will be on the side of — he will talk with Putin and he wants to destroy ISIS. Those are both things that help Assad.

I don’t believe that he is going to want to get into guaranteeing hunks of Syria under American control or Turkish control. I think that Syria is trying to rebuild its country after the economy has gone into a tailspin, a failed coup, tons of terrorist attacks, an incipient war with the Kurds.

Turkey is trying to get back to normal. And that means finding a way out of the Syrian quagmire. It wants one thing guaranteed, and that is that the Kurds do not hive off and create their own state.

Russia and Bashar al-Assad can offer him those guarantees. And they will ask him to withdraw from Syria in order to give him those guarantees. And I think that is the basis for future talks between Turkey, Russia and Assad.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Joshua Landis, Andrew Tabler, thank you both very much.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Pleasure.

ANDREW TABLER: Pleasure.

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