conflict photos 2016
14 December 2016: Syrian pro-government forces advance in the Jisr al-Haj neighbourhood during the ongoing military operation to retake remaining rebel-held areas of AleppoGeorge Ourfalian/AFP

Russia is successfully applying a "divide and conquer" strategy in Syria, of which the most recent ceasefire is a central piece. With the announcement of a nationwide truce negotiated with Turkey, Russia is transforming the recent military success in Aleppo into a political victory that paves the way for future diplomatic and military offensives.

Few details have filtered out regarding the deal and ceasefires in Syria have a tendency to die prematurely, yet the timing of the ceasefire hints at Russian efforts to divide an already weakened opposition.

Weeks after a humiliating defeat in Aleppo that saw thousands displaced to the nearby province of Idlib, the ceasefire proposal places opposition groups in an uncomfortable position. The fact that Turkey, one their main sponsors, negotiated the agreement suggests that Ankara will apply significant pressure on the various factions within the opposition to abide by the truce.

During the past month, Ankara has shifted its Syria policy toward a more "Kurdish-centric" approach that focuses on countering expanding Kurdish cantons rather than fighting Assad. More recently, Erdogan has become even more vulnerable to Russian pressures to abandon part of the opposition in the wake of the Russian ambassador's assassination by a Turkish police officer.

The shocking televised killing in Ankara of Andrey Karlov by a gunman shouting "don't forget Aleppo" and repeating a slogan often used by jihadists hastened a shift in the Turkish strategy that is highlighted by the Turkish foreign minister's recent description of al-Nusra Front as a "terrorist" group.

As natural as this may seem given al-Nusra's ties to al-Qaeda and despite its recent rebranding to "Jabhat Fateh al-Sham", the statement was an earthquake for the Turkish diplomacy that has thus far turned a blind eye toward the more extremist elements of the opposition for the sake of overthrowing Assad.

Putin certainly has a talent for taking advantage of temporary weaknesses.

Not many will remember, yet just a few months ago Erdogan had even questioned whether the al-Qaeda-linked entity was indeed a terrorist group in light of clashes between Islamic State and al-Nusra. The ceasefire proposal, which excludes "terrorist groups" thus confirms a new Turkish approach and sidelines the more stubborn backers of the opposition in the Gulf, as well as the US, although Washington has largely sidelined itself by being an unreliable ally to almost everyone.

In Syria itself, the announcement arrives just in time to give the final blow to an already struggling effort to unite the mosaic of factions fighting Assad. In fact, the announcement comes on the backdrop of negotiations over a potential merger between Ahrar al-Sham, a prominent Islamist group, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and several other smaller factions tied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Talks of merger aren't new and almost succeeded in January of this year. With the pressure to end "factionalism" in the wake of the loss of Aleppo, the idea resurfaced, albeit thus far with no result, over the inner tensions and renewed rivalry between the two groups.

The decision isn't simple and while a merger could help the opposition face upcoming military threats in the short term it would also boost Assad's claim that Damascus is fighting "terrorists" and delegitimize the opposition in the eyes of the West for good. Negotiations over a potential merger have already split Ahrar al-Sham, an often forgotten and yet central actor of the civil war, between its leader, who is believed to oppose such a dangerous merger, and a growing dissident faction.

Pro-Assad Syrians celebrate in streets of Aleppo as government declares victory Reuters

As talks have largely been unfruitful and will likely remain so, the ceasefire will further deepen the rift between factions tempted to accept the ceasefire and preserve its ties with Ankara, and those working with al-Nusra.

This is not to say that Russia has planned this all along, but Putin certainly has a talent for taking advantage of temporary weaknesses. The Russian leader is much more of a judoka, spotting openings and fragilities, than a chess master planning his moves in advance. Still, on the tatami mat -just as much as on the international scene - planning ahead may not be the key and it sometimes takes a few skillful moves to knock down your adversaries, at least temporarily.

The perception that the Assad regime and its allies are actively participating in the fight against terror could convince the new US administration to turn a blind eye to Iran's participation to the offensive.

With Turkey now adopting a more "realistic" approach to the Syrian conflict to hedge its bets and al-Nusra left out of the ceasefire, Moscow can plan its next moves. On the ground, the ceasefire doesn't prevent a much anticipated offensive in the Idlib province, where al-Nusra is known to operate.

Playing the role of the "useful idiot", the jihadist group is the perfect excuse for Iranian forces redeploying in southern Aleppo to finish off what they started in Aleppo itself. Beyond that, the freezing of all fronts apart from one ensures that pro-regime forces can concentrate on one key objective, which is much more than the cherry on top of the cake given Assad's inability to hold regime-held areas on its own.

An Idlib offensive against groups refusing the ceasefire and deemed "terrorists" coming just in time for Trump's inauguration in January would present the Russo-Iranian alliance in a favourable light to the new President, who has prioritised fighting militant Islamism above all else.

The perception that the Assad regime and its allies are actively participating in the fight against terror could indeed help further convince the new US administration to chip in and turn a blind eye to Iran's participation to the offensive. And once again, Russia would have proven that the Latin concept "divide et impera" hasn't aged a day.


Michael Horowitz is director of intelligence at Prime Source, a Middle East-based geopolitical consultancy producing updates and analysis on the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.