Endgame in Syria

The most complex problem in international relations today is Syria. What in 2011 began as a peaceful manifestation of grievances stimulated by the Arab spring against the regime dominated by a minority Alawite elite led by the president, Bashar al-Assad, was transformed by an excessive show of government force into a bitter civil conflict that attracted the interventions of regional and international powers.

By Krishnan Srinivasan
  • Published 21.06.18
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The most complex problem in international relations today is Syria. What in 2011 began as a peaceful manifestation of grievances stimulated by the Arab spring against the regime dominated by a minority Alawite elite led by the president, Bashar al-Assad, was transformed by an excessive show of government force into a bitter civil conflict that attracted the interventions of regional and international powers.

Among the active participants in the Syrian imbroglio are the Americans, supported by several western European countries led by Britain and France, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms other than Oman, who all oppose the Assad government. Jordan was in this group until its fighter plane was shot down in 2014. The Iraqi government, being Shia, favours the Syrian government and is active against Islamist extremists on the Syria-Iraq border, while Russia, Iran and the Shia Hezbollah from Lebanon are in Syria at the government's invitation as combatants supporting Assad. Each of these nations has its particular agenda, usually in collision with that of the others. All agree that Syria should remain a single entity, but differ on how that unity should be brought about.

The Syrian war, now in its seventh year, has claimed around 400,000 lives, with five million refugees, seven million displaced persons, and much of the country in ruins. Thousands have been imprisoned and atrocities perpetrated by all sides. Chemical weapons have been reportedly used by both government and Opposition.

Damascus contends that all its opponents are terrorists. The rebels were indeed infiltrated by Islamists including the Islamic State and al-Qaida. The extremists took over the entire anti-Assad movement, which had always comprised an undercurrent of Sunni-Shia/Alawite rivalry. The rebels were supported with finance and weapons by intelligence agencies and militaries from the West and their Arab allies, though the so-called Free Syrian Army, backed initially by the West, melted away. For several years, bombing raids were executed by the West targeting Islamist militants but with heavy civilian casualties.

By 2013, the Syrian army was exhausted and the Americans increased pressure to remove Assad. The intervention of the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah then tilted the scales in favour of Assad, who is still there, in control of all the urban centres, most of the population, and much of the countryside apart from Syria's borders with Turkey, Israel and Iraq. The government's siege and starvation policy has cleared nearly all the rebel enclaves. Far from being 'isolated' as the West would like the world to suppose, Syria remains a member of the United Nations. The West insists that Assad must step aside for any peace agreement to hold, but could not exert enough influence to enforce this. Iran and the Hezbollah will not buy the Western argument, while the Russians are agnostic.

The basic realities are that the Americans, with the support of Israel, are training rebels near the Jordanian border in the south, and have troops in the northeast along the border with Turkey and Iraq, where they support the Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey has a fraught relationship with the United States of America, its Nato ally, and a growing closeness with Russia since the failed coup of 2015. It has troops in northern Syria since 2016 against the Kurds, whom it regards as terrorists. Iran and Hezbollah, with their troops, wish to secure Assad's position and establish a Shia corridor from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Israel, with Saudi Arabia - with which it has no diplomatic relations - opposes the spread of Iranian influence; Israel has launched several attacks on Syrian military facilities in provinces with alleged concentration of Iranian forces. Moscow's close relationship with Israel is another complication; in control of much of the airspace over Syria, it has allowed Israel to strike at Iran's targets, as though it believes with the West that Iranian influence in Syria, resulting in apprehensions of the Sunni majority there, and Iran's assumed threat to Israel, should be curbed.

There are now disparate attempts at peace talks. Along with Iran and Turkey, the Russians have engaged in an 'Astana process' which seeks to bring all parties together to promote peace in Syria. The withdrawal of foreign forces, which Russia wants, will not be welcome to Iran or Turkey. The grouping of the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan hopes to hitch itself to the Astana process. But there is no sign yet of crucial American support. The sporadic UN sponsored talks are on hold, waiting for some breakthrough from Astana or Washington.

Meanwhile, Assad has gained in confidence and speaks of re-establishing control over the whole country. Now, Moscow needs to keep on good terms with Assad and Iran while developing economic ties with Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. With Washington too, for it is on board for the peace process. Given its balancing act, Moscow's desire for a speedy settlement is greater than that of the others.