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Piecing together the Syrian puzzle: can a nightmare scenario still be avoided?

Image credit: Christiaan Triebert

Image credit: Christiaan Triebert

Following the recent nuclear deal with Iran a flurry of diplomatic activity has emerged in an effort to bridge the many entrenched positions fuelling the Syrian crisis. Not only has Iranian diplomacy been active but also Saudi and Russian with Oman and Qatar in attendance. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been seeking common ground in their approach to the conflict. The United States has been wondering to what extent Iran can be instrumental in breaking the logjam. However, in the forefront of everyone’s mind is the mounting threat posed by ISIS and the fear that one day black flags could be flying over Damascus.

These developments have sparked speculation as to whether a breakthrough in a conflict that in the past four years has cost the lives of a quarter of a million people and uprooted eleven million is approaching. Is something brewing under the surface which would warrant optimism? Is the Assad regime starting to crumble, is its grip loosening following recent territorial setbacks? Indeed, Syria is in the process of being carved up into several parts: the regime’s core area is in the west, ISIS in the east, Kurds in the northwest, moderate opposition in the south and rebel coalition, which includes the al-Nusra front, affiliated to al-Qaeda, in the north.

It is time to assess which forces are driving this potential turn of events and whether these developments can generate any momentum towards a negotiated settlement. Recent territorial setbacks suffered by the regime, the threat posed by ISIS and the impact on the conflict of the Iran nuclear deal together with Turkish participation in the air campaign in Syria would appear to be the principal factors. The present refugee crisis in Europe has also underlined the urgent need to start meaningful negotiations.

The Syrian regime shows signs of wear and tear

Slowly but surely the impact of a devastating civil war is taking its toll on a regime, long considered an impregnable citadel. Indeed, although the political structure, set up forty-five years ago by the former President Hafez Assad and fortified by the Baath-party straightjacket with the aim of balancing the various sectarian and ethnic communities within an iron-clad fist, is still intact. The Syrian military – as announced by President Assad – has been pulling back to a defensive line around the Alawite homeland under pressure from the rebels. A new coalition of opposition forces in Idlib in the north, dominated by the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra front and Ahrar al-Sham (free men of Syria), as well as the more moderate opposition groups in the south, have been gaining territory. Furthermore, ISIS took over a large area of eastern Syria by overrunning Palmyra, a world famous archeological site. Defections from the military and problems in replenishing the regime’s depleted forces have been reported. Regime-driven population swaps or sect-based displacements in conflict areas not far from Damascus (Zabardani) have occurred.

The regime seems unable to recuperate its losses at the hands of rebel groups and ISIS. The tide is therefore gradually turning against it as ever more loyalist groups wonder whether it would not be better to abandon the regime rather than endure further sacrifices.

Fear of a Jihadist take-over in Damascus

All forces in the Syrian conflict, Sunni as well as Shia, seem to agree on one thing: remove the threat from ISIS which is seeking to establish a Caliphate in territory seized from Syria and Iraq. Despite being driven from Kobani last year due to a combination of US-led airstrikes and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the ground, ISIS still controls roughly 50% of the country. The terror group has been signalled in southern Syria and in the neighbourhood of Damascus. Reports have also emerged that ISIS is using mustard gas. With Assad withdrawing to core areas they could lay their hands on other regions. Furthermore the regime, in application of the principle ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, has not always prevented ISIS from expanding.

Other groups causing concern are Ahrar al-Sham, part of the Sunni militant group but without al-Qaeda links, and the al-Nusra front, said to be the most effective opposition group in the fight against Assad to date. The al-Nusra front, predominantly Syrian fighters, and less radical in its methods and adherence to policies than ISIS, is mainly concerned with ousting Assad, not creating a Caliphate. Efforts have been undertaken-brokered by Qatar, to produce a split within the al-Nusra front, by enticing its members to adhere to a more moderate platform of Islam, thus facilitating the removal of the opposition group from the west’s terrorist list. Therefore, one of the principal dilemmas for western policymakers is finding the right balance between the moderate but marginal and ineffective rebel groups and the powerful Islamist rebels. In addition, the more moderate opposition such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has always maintained that they would deal with the radical Islamist rebels once Assad was driven from power. In a reaction to this assertion the al-Nusra front recently struck a preemptive blow by capturing several moderate opposition forces being trained and equipped to fight ISIS.

The Iran nuclear deal and ISIS raids generate regional activism

Aware that the US under Obama are reluctant to intervene militarily in the region, Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against Yemen, earmarked as another country-apart from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon- where Iran is seen to be gaining influence. To add to this concern the fear exists that the Iran nuclear deal could eventually affect the regional balance of power and produce a shift in US policy. Simultaneously Saudi Arabia is reaching out to Russia which, fostering its links to Iran, has emerged as a key intermediary, attempting to prod the fragmented Syrian opposition in Damascus into talking with the regime. On the other hand Iran has shown interest in starting up a formal dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), building on an initiative by Oman, supported by Qatar.

In a separate development Turkey, in reaction to a raid by ISIS on a border town with Syria, has joined the US-led international coalition aimed at launching airstrikes against ISIS positions in Syria. Its airbases in southern Turkey, situated much closer to the theatre of operations than the Gulf States, are at the disposal of the US. It also unleashed airstrikes against the PKK while announcing its intention to set up a safe zone in Syria. However, apart from toppling Assad Turkey’s main concern is to prevent the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the YPG (People’s Defence Units) from consolidating its claim to autonomy and eventual independence.

Creating the right conditions for negotiations: changing the balance of power on the ground and breaking the regime’s grip on state institutions

In the light of these developments what are the prospects for a start-up of a diplomatic negotiation process? A breakthrough any time soon seems unlikely. These diplomatic efforts have had little impact on the events on the ground. Even if from the rebel’s point of view the situation has been progressing favourably the tipping point has not yet been reached. Furthermore, the profusion of opposition groups with varying allegiances does not facilitate the task of bringing them to the negotiating table. On the other hand, even though Assad has decided to concentrate his military efforts on his homeland territory he still has control over a considerable part of the Syrian population. Moreover, the regime manages state functions – that is public goods and services over which it exercises a monopoly. This access to state institutions confers the regime legitimacy and relevance on the international stage as a real actor, not just a client state. It is not so much territory that is important but the capacity to control state institutions. As pointed out by Kheder Khaddoen in a revealing article published recently by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the situation in Iraq is different. The structure of political power is divided which allows Iran to exploit competitive factions within and on the fringes of state institutions. In Syria, although Iran has increased its military and financial support this country has not been allowed to penetrate Syria’s state institutions. Furthermore Iran’s main concern is the axis between Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus to Hezbollah in Lebanon in the struggle against Israel.

Russia also wants to maintain the Syrian state intact. Indeed, its greatest fear is the collapse of the Syrian state. In this respect its interest coincides with those of the US and other western countries. Moreover, recent plans to establish a forward air operating base near Latakia in support of efforts to fight ISIS – as reported by US sources – emphasise Russian resolve to prop up the Assad regime. This new development could cause problems with the US-led military campaign, thus complicating the prospect of negotiations. Subsequently direct military consultations between the US and Russia will take place. In this way Russia seeks to have a say in the outcome of any negotiations as well as projecting its power in the region. Thus, Russia and Iran will not easily abandon the Assad regime unless a viable alternative were to emerge.

Beware of the risk of state functions falling into the wrong hands

Do we want Islamist groups to take over state functions? What happens in case of a collapse of the state? How can we secure an orderly transfer of powers?

To avoid these dangers an approach should be considered which attempts to make fighters on the ground more answerable to external actors who eventually will be involved in the negotiating process. Therefore despite initial ‘teething’ problems, programmes initiated recently by the US to arm, equip and fund moderate local opposition forces in the fight against ISIS should be pursued firmly and stepped up – if necessary in an adapted form -, today against ISIS and tomorrow possibly against the regime. Regional powers with influence over the combatants such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey should enhance their support for training, equipping and funding so that they can further increase their leverage over the fighting groups. Without at this stage becoming directly involved in the military struggle, the EU, which so far has tended to view the Syrian disaster as mainly a matter of ‘homeland security’, humanitarian aid and today a refugee crisis, should back these efforts. The link-up between political groups outside the country and civil and military groups on the ground is to be supported by international actors, enabling the opposition to manage state institutions in areas under their control, thus giving them a real voice in future negotiations and subsequently ensuring an orderly transfer of powers. Consequently, local non-extremist groups should eventually prevail thanks to their superior weaponry, resources, training and numbers. Joint efforts by all forces, including possibly regional troops, will at the appropriate time be needed to drive out ISIS while the US-led coalition from the air is joined by other countries.

Recognising existing realities

Yet even within this framework it will be difficult to keep out some Islamic groups from having a say in possible future negotiations. This reality will have to be recognised if we want to avert a break-up of a unitary Syria and reduce Sunni radicalism, as embodied by ISIS and other radical groups, fuelled by rising resentment and a perception of victimhood. In a world where Sunnis represent 85% of Islam and 75% in Syria at the outbreak of the conflict (including Kurds) and given recent developments in Iraq, where the Shia majority is now in charge, an eventual process towards a Sunni majority rule in Syria with the necessary guarantees for minorities such as the Christians would in the longer term seem to be a realistic assumption.

Vol. 7, No. 56 (2015)

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