For the past few days the official media in Moscow and Tehran have hailed a scheme unveiled in Astaneh, Kazakhstan, as “a peace plan for Syria.” For the Russian media, credit for the new scheme goes almost exclusively to President Vladimir Putin who is thus cast as a peacemaker. Iranian media, however, assign Putin only as second fiddle with President Hassan Rouhani, facing a difficult re-election, put top of the bill.
A front page report by the official Islamic News Agency (IRNA) claimed that the Astaneh “breakthrough” was the result of nine “summits” between Rouhani and Putin. It also claimed that “the Iranian initiative” had forced Turkey, designated as “one of countries opposed to Syria” to fall into line and accept the proposed Astaneh plan.
Interestingly, neither the Russian nor the Iranian official media mention the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a sign that Tehran and Moscow are more interested in tackling their own problems in Syria rather than “helping” their ally in Damascus.
The so-called “peace plan” is premised on a vaguely defined ceasefire to be followed by setting up four “secure zones” in Idlib, Ghoutah, Homs and an as yet undecided place “in the south”.
The Astaneh plan is a rehash of an old colonial scheme known as “la Syrie utile” (Useful Syria) which the French tried to apply in the 1920s during the “Sirocco” troubles, an uprising led by Arabs, Kurds and Turks. The aim was to consolidate control over the Syrian coastal strip between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean as well as the main road to Lebanon.
The full implementation of the plan would have meant abandoning more than 80 per cent of Syrian territory, albeit much of its sparsely populated deserts, to rebels.
Then as now, the colonial power present in Damascus lacked the manpower needed to impose effective control over Syria as a whole. An estimate by the French Ministry of Defence at the time speculated that at least 25,000 additional troops would be needed for “effective presence throughout Syrian territory.”
Not yet recovered from devastating human losses in the First World War just over a decade earlier, France simply could not spare so many troops far away from Europe. In fact, France exercised its “mandate” thanks to around 20,000 militiamen raised from among religious minorities, notably the Alawites.
Today, imposing effective control on Syrian territory would require 10 times as many troops, something that neither Russia nor Iran are in a position to do.
At the same time, Assad’s demographic support base has also reached its outer limits even if we include “Hezbollah” militants from Lebanon and mercenaries recruited by Iran in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Moscow and Tehran also hope that the Astaneh scheme would sow confusion in Washington where President Donald Trump has called for the creation of “safe havens” in Syria. Putin and Trump are expected to meet during the G-20 summit scheduled for July. According to Russian and Iranian sources the idea is that Putin would try to sell the Astaneh scheme as the fulfillment of Trump’s wishes for safe havens.
Washington, however, is unlikely to be so easily duped. Under the Astaneh scheme Russian and Iranian troops, together with their auxiliaries and mercenaries will be in control of three of the “secure zones” while a token Turkish military presence will be scripted in for Idlib.
With anti-Assad fighting units disarmed or kept away, the remnants of Assad’s forces would enjoy a hinterland from which they could launch sorties against the rebels. As for the ceasefire included in the scheme, it makes no mention of the bulk source of fire in the current Syrian tragedy, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by Russian and Syrian air force units. Ground fire may cease in and around the four “secure zones”, depriving the anti-Assad forces from a key means of exerting pressure on the unwanted regime.
Thus, the Astaneh plan is designed to get Moscow and Tehran off the hook, not to pave the way for peace in Syria.
This is why, the Syrian opposition, seeing through the scheme, has decided to reject it at least in its present form.
The Astaneh scheme is inspired by other examples of colonial attempts at dealing with a militarily hopeless situation.
During the Malaysian insurgency, the British sued a similar scheme for almost a decade but failed to clinch victory until they committed large numbers of troops backed by locally recruited mercenaries.
The Americans, despite the fact that had almost half a million troops in the field, set up their own “secure hamlets” in Vietnam. But they, too, failed to reap any benefit from them because the demographic calculation was against their allies in Saigon.
During the Afghan war, the Soviet Union tried a similar scheme because they could not commit more than a quarter of a million troops plus the local army controlled by Communists and the Uzbek mercenary militia. Like in Syria today, demographic reality was against them because, rightly or wrongly, a majority of Afghans rejected the Communist regime.
Analysts familiar with realities in Syria know that the Astaneh scheme is stillborn even as a public relations gimmick. The core of the Syrian issue is simple: Russia and Iran are trying to impose a regime that a majority of Syrians are determined to dislodge.