A tentative ceasefire is holding in most parts of Syria as the truce’s main backer, Russia, pushes for a United Nations resolution, which it says would start a political process that could quickly take the steam out of six years of war.
As the most destructive year of the conflict drew to a close, Moscow and Ankara were moving frantically to secure the deal, which each side claimed offers the best hope yet of an end to a war that has had few boundaries and no apparent endpoint.
The UN security council welcomed the deal and plans for fresh peace talks but the resolution comes against a backdrop of deadlock among members supporting different approaches.
Even as the bilateral push intensified, opposition groups warned that texts of agreements to be put to the UN this weekend failed to enshrine a key element of their cause – a political transition away from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assadtowards a new governing body that would rebuild the country and reshape its body politic.
The demand was central to previous US and UN-led initiatives and senior opposition leaders said they would consider the ceasefire deal null and void unless it was honoured. The standoff marks a moment of reckoning for Russia and Turkey which, after earlier pursuing competing visions for postwar Syria, have in the past six months found much common ground and, along with Iran, are rapidly carving out spheres of influence across the once sovereign state.
Turkey, a backer of mainstream and Islamist groups, has moved away from its earlier insistence that Assad be defeated militarily, but remains adamant that he be removed in a political process. Russia, meanwhile, has hedged, insisting repeatedly to opposition negotiators that it is not wedded to the embattled president, but refusing to commit to a transition.
The bilateral push has come when the anti-Assad opposition is at its weakest point in the war. Having been bombed out of Aleppo and steadily abandoned by its regional backers, six of the seven main armed groups have signed on to the peace initiative, after receiving assurances that aid will start to flow to besieged areas if it continues to hold.
“What could we do?” asked a senior member of Jaysh al-Islam, one of the signatories to the truce. “Our backers [Saudi Arabia] have been nowhere to be seen all year. There’s no one from the Gulf here at all.” Qatar, a prominent backer of the opposition and ally of Turkey, has sharply scaled back its support in the past six months. Diplomatic sources confirmed to the Observer that the reduced backing is partly due to a threat from senior Russian officials. “That happened in around August,” said one senior regional official. “But the other reason they withdrew was they did not want to be associated with a losing cause.”
While things have fallen into line for Russia and Turkey, not all stakeholders in the crisis are satisfied. Iran, which is not a driver of the ceasefire plan, but is a pivotal player in Syria’s short-term future, remains implacably opposed to Assad’s exit. Along with Russia, it has invested blood and treasure in stabilising him and safeguarding the remaining pillars of regime influence. However, now that battlefield wins have effectively ensured Assad cannot lose, very divergent views are emerging about what comes next.