Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

When diplomacy fails

The Russian initiative to end the conflict in Syria came to nothing last week, leaving the country’s armed groups still at war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week’s Russian initiative to end the conflict in Syria came to nothing, with observers saying that acting without a clear agenda, international backing, an enforceable mandate or binding rules Moscow had simply wasted valuable time and perhaps even painted diplomacy into a corner.

Most Syrian opposition groups rejected the initiative, insisting that any talks with the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must comply with the Geneva Statement, which envisions an interim governing body with sovereign powers, practically shutting off Al-Assad and his aides from any future deal.

Trying to skirt these objections, the Russians issued invitations to a meeting in Moscow to discuss the initiative on a personal basis, favouring the so-called “soft” opposition that is ready to make concessions to the regime.

But even the softest of all opposition members could not possibly hope to resolve the crisis through the watered-down formula reached in Moscow. While the Russians managed to put together a Declaration of Principles at the end of last week’s meeting, they failed to offer either inspiration or leadership.

The declaration approved in Moscow apparently allows the regime to continue bringing foreign fighters into the country to bolster its position. It makes no mention of an interim governing body, or the much-needed restructuring of the security and military forces. And it is also silent on transitional justice, a flaw it shares with previous diplomatic efforts and one that is likely to haunt the country for years.

Moreover, the Moscow Declaration ignores the Geneva Statement, the one agreement that has promised anything resembling a viable solution. Instead of guaranteeing political transition in Syria, the declaration underlines the need to fight terrorism, a point that must have pleased the regime since it offers it a fighting chance to stay in power.

It was clear from the start that the Russians were not concerned about Syria’s future but only in the survival of their allies in Damascus. In order to achieve this, Moscow tried to turn one opposition group against another, cajoling or threatening the weaker members of the opposition with a view to forcing them to make a deal that would keep the regime in power.

But as the Russians tried to steer the country toward another deadlock, the military scene was changing on more than one front in Syria.

In the north, Islamic State (IS) forces were successfully repulsed from the town of Ain Al-Arab, or Kobani. A combined Syrian-Iraqi Kurdish force managing to force the jihadists out of the town with the support of air strikes by the international coalition.

In the south, the Syrian opposition expelled the army and its allied militias from positions around Daraa.

After the expulsion of IS fighters from Ain Al-Arab, Kurdish leaders started speaking about autonomy in various parts of the country’s north.

In the south, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) claims to be in control of 60 per cent of the country, putting it within 50 km of Damascus.

It is also reported to have gained control of the army’s artillery and air defence positions in the south. With nearly 30,000 men under arms, the FSA appears to be regaining its momentum. FSA commanders believe that if southern Syria is turned into a no-fly zone, they will be able to march on Damascus.

As the diplomatic options dwindle, fighters in both the north and the south of the country seem more confident than at any time before. And the shifting realities of the battlefield speak louder than the diplomatic initiatives.

Since the Syrian crisis started some four years ago, diplomatic efforts to end the crisis have been at best crippled or unfocused. International mediators like Kofi Annan and Staffan de Mistura have tried their luck, but to no avail.

The initiatives seen thus far have been largely ineffectual, partly because their commitment to regime change has often been questionable and partly because they have lacked enforcement mechanisms.

The initiatives have also lacked a formula for transitional justice. When 200,000 people or more have been killed, it is impossible to hope for a permanent settlement unless the murderers are brought to justice.

As a result, the best that any of these initiatives could have achieved would have been an uneasy peace that was fraught with hatred and prone to vendetta.

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