OPINION by Chris Doyle – Easing out of 18 months of semi-hibernation, international diplomacy of the last quarter of the year on Syria saw a major surge. What went before would have certainly been in “Trump-speak,” low energy.
The reasons for this sudden dynamism are non-Syrian ones. The conflict was of limited interest to the outside world unless and until it affected it. A quarter of a million Syrians get killed, four million become refugees and even chemical weapons were used on civilians and yet grandstanding and posturing have been see-through covers for the disinterest. The U.S. under President Obama has been risk averse and conflict fatigued, Europe broke and distracted by its own internal challenges. Ending the conflict was, and still to a large extent remains, secondary to perceived external state interests within Syria, whether it was ensuring a favoured proxy prevailed or one’s enemy was bled dry.
Had a million Syrians been killed, would this have changed matters? Who knows? The U.S. and the EU have only sluggishly crawled out of their non-interventionist bed when international terror movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS started gaining ground, not in Syria, but in Iraq. It was the ISIS capture of Mosul not Raqqa that triggered the U.S. and allies into action. Many international politicians have been calculating between two devils, ISIS or Assad and are prepared to back the latter no matter what responsibility the regime had for the disaster that Syria faces today.
In a space of only weeks, the refugees morphed from a distant, tired issue, to a front page tear jerking cause celebre with promises of homes being opened up to refugees all over Europe, and latterly to being a core part of an existential threat to the civilised world. The Syrian refugees were a respectable, worthy donor issue; non-controversial as long as they remained in the Middle East. When hundreds of thousands crossed into Europe, refugees became a threat, walls and barbed wire fences went up, and action sought. The reaction of some of the far right in Europe after the Paris attacks betrayed an almost opportunistic delight in attacking the Trojan horse Muslim refugees. Much of the media portrayed what was and remains a Syrian refugee crisis all of sudden as a European refugee crisis. Does anyone seriously believe the refugee issue will quieten in 2016?
AMBITIOUS AND ALMOST FANATICAL
These international political efforts are likely to continue apace in 2016. The ambitious, almost fantastical Vienna plan envisages a national ceasefire within weeks in Syria. Has Vladimir Putin committed to stopping his bombing of Syrian opposition forces as part of this ceasefire? Remember Putin and Assad share a common desire to frame all the armed groups fighting the regime as terrorists, and so continue shelling these “targets” on that basis. The anti-ISIS coalition is not going to stop bombing ISIS targets so Putin will argue that Russia is doing the same, fighting terrorism.
But if there is a belated alignment of international pragmatic interests, it is far from clear that this extends to Middle East regional actors who have stoked the conflict. Iran and Hizbollah fear any political deal would dash their interests. Saudi still pushes for a complete outright victory against Assad to deny Iran whilst Turkey will promote its own favoured militias and any power that thwarts Kurdish aspirations.
Are Syrian actors any more ready for the painful tough compromises? The Syrian regime fears concessions as a fatal display of weakness. The formal position of the Syrian opposition groupings has not shifted from the Assad must go first position.
In the short term, political progress will be met by an intensification of fighting, something that is already a grim reality. Throughout this conflict, as indeed in other wars, the path to negotiations is typically the moment when those stakeholders who fear losing ground in talks, act as spoilers, even whilst professing peaceful intentions. The Syrian regime has already done this by inviting Russian and Iranian forces in to push towards better ceasefire lines, retaking the rest of Homs, and pressing northwards. The U.S., France and Russia are all upscaling their air attacks on ISIS.
The Syrian political opposition is still an embarrassing mess. The U.S. and the ‘Friends of Syria’ back in 2013 supposedly blessed the Syria National Coalition as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. External powers should never have expected to settle the debate as to who is legitimate or not. Only this month, a merry assortment of opposition figures turned up to Riyadh, devoid of several leading opposition constituencies not least the Kurdish PYD. The armed groups are represented but patchily.
Prior to the last Syria regime-Syrian opposition talks at Geneva II, 19 opposition groups issued a statement withdrawing all recognition of the Syrian National Coalition and rejecting them. Many may yet repeat such a position.
Even more likely is a serious meltdown in relations between al-Nusra Front and the groups with which it has been effectively embedded. A successful political process will force many to choose between their Syrian nationalist leanings and their Islamist ones. The consequent clashes may be a key feature of the coming months.
If disunity in the Syrian opposition ranks remains a constant, the backers of the Syrian regime may also clash. Russia and Iran are perhaps best described as “frenemies,” the outer cooperation masking a deep suspicion of the other as well as competing bids for influence in Syria.
The Vienna process is laudable but it has no answers to the daunting challenges in Syria. A national ceasefire in reality will require that plus dozens of locally mediated ones. Just how strong and well-resourced will any monitoring mission be in Syria? Will all sides consent to the tough confidence building measures necessary, such as the release of detainees? And how will the Syrian economy be rebuilt and transformed from a war economy to a productive peace economy. Some may think this is irrelevant but tens, even hundreds of thousands of armed men will be asked to stop fighting. Will they still get paid? What sort of jobs might be available for them if they wanted to retire from the conflict? What livings there are to be made in Syria frequently are conflict-dependent.
The challenge for 2016 is how to translate increase international interest in ending the Syrian conflict into being both a regional and Syrian need. Codifying the illusory timetable in the latest U.N. Security Council Resolution is one thing, but translating this into addressing the real life, on the ground issues in Syria is quite another. Al Arabiya