October 17, 2016
It takes an expert to explain the identity, evolution, affiliation and the objectives of the different groups battling in Syria. The history of groups bringing together major international actors involved in the conflict is less complicated but also interesting.
On February 4, 2012 the UN Security Council failed to adopt a draft resolution on Syria as Russia and China vetoed the text which supported the Arab League’s proposed peace plan. It thus became clear that Moscow and Peking were not going to allow the West the freedom of action it enjoyed in Libya. (Russia and China had abstained on UNSC Resolution 1973 of March 17, 2011 on Libya.)
In reaction, French President Sarkozy initiated the “Friends of the Syrian People Group” which held its first meeting in Tunis on February 24, 2012, two months ahead of French presidential elections. Tunis meeting was followed by others in Istanbul, Paris, Marrakesh, Rome, Amman and Doha. The purpose was to support the opposition and force President Assad to leave. However, it gradually became clear that regime change in Syria would not come as easily as it did Tunisia and Egypt and wider international cooperation was needed. And, this initially very ambitious Group started to fade away.
On June 30, 2012, the “Action Group for Syria” met in Geneva under the chairmanship of Mr. Kofi Annan, UN Special Envoy for Syria. It brought together the Foreign Ministers of not only France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar but also China and Russia. The Group issued a communique which became the basis for follow-on endeavors for peace although it has remained on paper. Most prominently, the communique had stated that the Action Group members were “opposed to any further militarization of the conflict”.
On September 14, 2013 Russia and the United States agreed on the “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons”.
In October 2015, the “Action Group” turned into the “International Syria Support Group (ISSG)”. Iran and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) joined. Thus, no country involved in the conflict was left out. But Russia’s intervention in Syria presented the Group with a changing ground situation.
On November 14, 2015 the Group met in Vienna and acknowledged the close linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process pursuant to the 2012 Geneva Communique, and that both initiatives should move ahead expeditiously. Jordan was given the responsibility to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists.
Later, the United States and the Russian Federation became the Group’s co-chairs in recognition of the fact that their cooperation was critical to bringing an end to the conflict.
On February 22, 2016 the Co-Chairs issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Annexed to the Joint Statement was the “Terms for Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. Both the Assad Government and the High Negotiation Council of the “moderate” opposition confirmed their acceptance of these terms and the UNSC approved it through Resolution 2268. Under this agreement Russia and the US were expected to delineate, with other members of the ISSG’s Ceasefire Task Force, the territory held by “Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council” which were excluded from the cessation of hostilities.
In a region characterized by murky relationships agreeing on who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist” was bound to present difficulties. Indeed, the current deadlock over Aleppo, beyond considerations of strategic competition, stems from the inability to separate al Nusra from the “moderate opposition”.
Ten days ago, the UN Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, urged Al-Nusra to leave the city, saying that he is willing to personally escort them out. According to Reuters, “If you [Al-Nusra] did decide to leave, in dignity with your weapons, to Idlib or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally am ready, physically ready, to accompany you,” he said. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s reaction was reportedly supportive but al Nusra fighters are probably asking “and then what?”
Last Saturday, United States, Russia and seven other countries, but not the ISSG, met in Lausanne and failed to agree on any concrete steps to match the current challenges, particularly in Aleppo other than saying that their meetings will continue.
Finally, on Sunday a group of “like-minded countries” (the UK, the US, France, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and the EU), to use the words of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Secretary Kerry, met in London. During their joint press conference both directed strong criticism at Russia and Secretary Kerry concluded his remarks saying:
“And let me make it clear: We are considering additional sanctions and we are also – let me make it clear, President Obama has not taken any options off the table at this point in time. So we’ll see where we are in the next few days in the context of the discussions we’re having…”
So, it started with the “Friends of the Syrian People Group”; later it was “Action Group for Syria”; then “International Syria Support Group” and now we have a group of “like-minded countries”; these titles representing perhaps the rising and diminishing hopes of the people of Syria and the trajectory of international cooperation to end the conflict.
With the relentless bombing of Aleppo and the beginning of the belated offensive to recapture Mosul, the region as well as Turkey are entering a critical week with the tragic developments in Yemen adding to the general mood of gloom. Yesterday in Goa, while answering questions from Russian journalists following the BRICS summit, Russian President Putin said that he hoped the United States and its allies would do their best to avoid civilian casualties in their attack on Mosul drawing a parallel between the Iraqi city and Aleppo. He also referred to “tensions growing between the United States and their regular allies in the region”. Neither his remarks nor those of Secretary Kerry bode well for the coming days.
As for Turkey, the government was always at the forefront of the efforts to dislodge President Assad. The public rational for this policy was Turkey having no choice but to welcome the Syrian refugees. What was never said openly was the expectation that the Assad regime would fall in a few months allowing for the swift return to Syria of a limited number of refugees, ensuring Ankara a quick and low-cost victory. Now we have nearly three million and President Assad still reigns in Damascus. Hopefully, our involvement in Iraq would yield better results.