26 January 2015
With ISIS controlling swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, terrorist attacks in Paris, turmoil in Libya and Yemen, Boko Haram’s massacres in Nigeria, public discourse of the West on Syria has started to change. References to President Assad’s ouster are less frequently heard. There is continuing talk about train-and-equip programs for the moderate Syrian opposition but these do not reflect much conviction. As a matter of fact, during an interview on 8 August 2014, President Obama has told Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times that,
“…the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
At present, there are two initiatives aimed at breaking the Syrian deadlock.
The first is a proposal put forward by UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, to freeze the fighting in Aleppo. This is an approach which has been tried before. In February 2014, under a UN brokered cease-fire, trapped civilians were evacuated from Homs. Later in May, again under a UN brokered cease-fire, which included the release of some captives held by rebels and the easing of a rebel siege on two Shiite towns, rebel fighters were given safe passage out of Homs. The deal was seen by some as a victory for the Assad regime just before the June 2014 presidential election. Actually, the UN was trying to help alleviate the human suffering. And, it was also seeking to set a precedent for other local cease-fires and thus pave the way for a political/diplomatic solution. This did not happen. For UN’s former Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, the Homs deal “was not part of a peaceful solution but part of the war solution”. Still, this is an effort worth pursuing.
The second is an initiative by Russia. This is an attempt to bring together the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition groups in Moscow, probably in search of a power-sharing formula. Initial reaction by some from the opposition has negative but one needs to wait and see.
In spite of the escalation in Ukraine Secretary Kerry stated that the US would also be supportive of the Russian initiative.
To judge what needs to be done and how in a broad framework, I would quote from the interview given by Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN Special Envoy for Syria, to Andrew Parasiliti of the Al Monitor. This was shortly after Mr.Brahimi’s resignation from his post in May 2014. He said:
“… right from the beginning it was very clear that the region was divided. The Syrians were divided. And the best hope, both for [previous Syria envoy] Kofi Annan and myself was that we were to work from outside, and come into the inside, as it were. So we tried the outer ring, which is the Security Council, and for me that was specifically the Americans and the Russians.
“The thing is, very soon in Syria things were polarized, and the circle that needed to be squared, was that one part of the parties, both inside Syria, and around Syria, and even further afield, was that there cannot be a solution with Bashar al-Assad and his immediate surroundings, while the other side said there cannot be a solution without Bashar al-Assad.
“If the Syrians are not capable of solving the problem alone, the first people who can help are the neighborhood, and definitely Iran is part of the neighborhood. So I think we have always been in favor of Iran being involved.
“There are a lot of agendas involved in this that have very little to do with the Syrian people…
“I think that the region has not done enough…”
I believe that “working from the outer ring which is the Security Council, specifically the US and Russia, and moving towards the inside…” is the right approach. However, as Mr. Brahimi has explained, between this outer ring and Syria proper are the countries of the region, forming a second ring. And to reach the center this second ring also needs to be crossed and this in itself is a huge task because of the deep divisions which dominate the region.
It appears that the US and Iran have moved away from hostile rhetoric to a certain level of cooperation generated by the shared determination to fight ISIS. The Syrian refugee problem has become too heavy a burden for neighbors of Syria. Turkey, in view of its Assad obsession still maintains an “open-door policy” but its foreign policy ratings are down. Lebanon is trying to stem the flow of refugees with a newly imposed visa requirement. Jordan has no more capacity for new comers. Gulf countries’ internal susceptibilities are growing despite the calm on the surface. All of this should be more than enough to energize peace efforts. And, the first step of such an endeavor has to be securing regional countries’ agreement on the lowest common denominators. Yet, despite threats to their immediate security and future stability, this is easier said than done…
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