A frozen conflict tends to denote the antithesis of both a hot war as well as a conflict in the midst of an active resolution process. While the war in Yemen remains one of the hottest conflict zones in the world, the Korea peace process represents a concerted effort to transform a long frozen conflict into one that is bilaterally resolved through peaceful means including through dialogue and the prospect of inter-Korean economic harmonisation.
For the past seven years, the conflict in Syria has been among the hottest if not the hottest war zone of the 21st century. Recent developments however point to the conflict transforming but not necessarily in the direction that all sides claim they desire (for radically different reasons).
Today it was confirmed that as per the Russo-Turkish agreement for de-escalation in Syria’s notorious Idlib Governorate, both opposition and government groups withdrew heavy weaponry from the de-militarised zone dividing the governorate between a de-facto Turkish/opposition zone of influence in the north and a Damascus/Russian zone of influence in the south. Much the same way that Germany and Korea were divided after 1945 and Vietnam was divided after 1954, so too does it appear that Idlib represents a dividing line between zones of influence that some of the most important parties to the Syrian conflict will now oversee. While internationally recognised terror groups including al-Qaeda/al-Nusrea appear to be acting in defiance of the agreement, the position of the terror organisation only makes it all the more easy for Turkey and Russia to coordinate a response against a hold-out to the otherwise widely accepted ‘mega-ceasefire’.
But beyond the self-evident division of Idlib into zones of influence, some key statements from major players in the conflict indicate that even at the level of rhetoric, the words used to describe the late-stage conflict are quickly metamorphosing into the language of a frozen conflict.
The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently described the Damascus approved Russo-Turkish deal on Idlib as a “temporary” arrangement and that in time Idlib would be fully re-integrated into the Syrian Arab Republic. While taken at face value, this rhetoric intended mainly for a domestic audience sounds like the language of opposition to the Idlib agreement, similar language has been used on the Korean peninsula since 1953 and yet even today, Korea remains legally divided between two distinct political entities. In this sense, the fact that Assad approved the Russo-Turkish agreement speaks louder than his statement regarding the “temporary” status of said agreement.
Likewise, hours ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that a final constitutional settlement to the conflict in-line with UN Resolution 2254 should not be rushed or subject to artificial timelines. According to Lavrov,
“We see no reasons to rush this process and artificially create some timeframes. Quality is everything in this case. We continue working, our representatives, together with the Iranian and Turkish ones, maintain contact with all the interested parties, including our Syrian colleagues and United Nations officials, with whom they regularly meet”.
Given how the first meeting of the Syrian National Dialogue Congress earlier this year in the Russian city of Sochi was characterised by frequent infighting between various participants, Russia clearly has a sound motivation for wanting to postpone future such conferences until such a time that an orderly display of dialogue can be guaranteed.
Because of this, it is safe to say that in the south, centre and west of the nation, the existing lines of control will likely remain as they are for the foreseeable future, both because the major state actors are all delivering on their agreements and likewise hold-out terror groups are becoming increasingly irrelevant from a military and strategic perspective. This is particularly true of Idlib and Aleppo Governorates.
One area however where the conflict in Syria risks heating up is in the north-east of the country. This region is currently occupied by the United States and their partner terror group YPG/PKK. While Russia and Iran will almost certainly not send their troops to the region, the reality in north eastern Syria is one in which Turkey and the US are currently in the midst of executing the terms of a fragile agreement designed to rid the northern Syria city of Manbij from occupation by the YPG/PKK terror organisation.
While Turkey and the US have begun jointly patrolling Manbij, Ankara still has many doubts as to America’s sincerity over cutting off ties from the radical Kurdish terror organisation which poses a direct threat to the peace and security of Turkey. Given that at the latest meeting of the Astana partners (Russia, Turkey, Iran) in Tehran, all three nations agreed to work to halt terrorism of all varieties in Syria while similar statements were made during the meeting of the Russian and Turkish Presidents when the Idlib deal was reached, it has been taken to mean that both Moscow and Tehran will politically support Turkey taking measures in north eastern Syria to protect its sovereignty from YPG/PKK attacks.
While Russia and Iran will not get militarily involved in north eastern Syria, their endorsement of Turkish President Erdogan’s sentiments makes it clear that the US is increasingly isolated in respect of its controversial relationship with the YPG/PKK.
Thus, in an abrupt reversal of fortunes, it would appear that the once rapidly shifting lines of control in western, southern and parts of central Syria are becoming not only stabilised by frozen while in north eastern Syria, it remains to be seen whether Turkey and the US can reach a long lasting meaningful agreement on the presence of a dangerous terror group on Turkey’s border that Ankara has made clear will not be tolerated.