The Syrian “cessation of hostilities” provides the People of the war torn country much needed relief. It also affords warring parties a chance to recalibrate their strategies, resupply, and reposition. Should the illusion of security persist, the ceasefire offers Western countries a chance to disengage from the conflict. The Assad regime hopes the US in particular will seize upon the chance to save face and terminate support for the Syrian rebels just as was done in the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Constant US reluctance makes such an outcome a very real concern for rebels, yet the ceasefire can also benefit their cause.
Although the US and the rest of the West have compelling interests to avoid further entanglement in the Syrian Civil War and the numerous other security threat of the region, the Syrian Refugee Crisis and Turkey’s geographic entanglement means NATO countries do have an interest in the conflict. Russia’s “shock and awe” strategy against rebel forces has helped force the acceptance of a ceasefire, yet it has also escalated the flow of refugees into Europe. More importantly, the end of Russia’s carpet-bombing campaign will not end the Refugee Crisis. Instead, the added devastation makes it far harder for refugees to return home.
Russian national security interests are at stake in Syria while it has an interest in using the situation to spread its influence into the Middle East via Syria and Iran. It has a far greater interest in using the situation in Syria to reestablish relations with the West in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis. By coercing Assad into a ceasefire, President Vladimir Putin has been useful to the West. The highly destructive manner in which the Russian military accomplished its goal has made Russia many enemies in Syria and throughout the Middle East. In turn, the escalating Syrian Refugee Crisis has made Russia many enemies in the Europe.
Facing economic collapses and overextending its military in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War has to be short-lived. If Putin feels he has accomplished his goals once peace talks have concluded and/or superficial elections are held, the Russian military will declare victory and withdraw support for Assad. If Putin hopes to do more than simply take credit for peace, and/or blame the West when fighting resumes under their continued support of rebel factions, Russia will have its second Afghan War. That said, the Syrian Civil War has not been resolved nor is an international peace agreement likely to resolve the grievances of rebel factions.
Should the ceasefire fail or the West drop support for moderate rebels, the Assad regime will push forward to crush rebellion with Russian air support. It will then turn on extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front. If the ceasefire holds and Syria is divided between the Assad regime and Western-backed rebels in a situation analogous to post WWII Germany, the rebel state will likely be weaker for some time, even with Western and Saudi Coalition support. Where Putin likely hopes this will mean rebel groups will exhaust themselves as they eliminate their weaker rivals, they all have a far greater interest in first weakening their common enemy, i.e. the Assad regime.
The Assad regime needs the rebels to secure territory against the Islamic State, but it also needs the Islamic State to prevent moderate rebels from solidifying their control over Syrian territory. Because holding territory undermines the reach of the Islamic State while making the terrorist group an easier target of international airstrikes, IS would be best served if it abandoned control over territory to employ guerilla warfare. Recognizing the inherent weakness of the rebel factions and the reluctance of Western-backed coalitions to cause collateral damage, the Islamic State and others would be wise to return to their original war against Assad in the territory his regime controls.
Recognizing the strategic interests and the limits of the Assad regime, the Western-backed rebels have leverage, even in their weaken position. Politically, Western leaders can only support the war criminals in the Assad regime, if rebel factions are willing to settle with Assad controlling his share of Syria. Despite guaranteed threats of lost Western support, the West will not drop support for any moderate rebel faction, unless they outright walk away from the peace process.
What this mean is that rebel factions can push the Assad regime to cede control over Syria’s armed forces to the command of the Free Syrian Army. In turn, all factions can unite against the extremists. The simple true is that the Assad regime is a far more pressing threat to the Syrian rebels; whereas, the Islamic State is a tolerable threat that requires a rebel response when the revivals collide. To cater to Russian interests, the rebels will have to accept some sort of Russian partnership, but it is possible that Putin will choose to dissolve his partnership with Assad. This is the only way of uniting factions against the Islamic State and ending the Civil War without creating a persistent insurgent threat.
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