Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1282, (11- 17 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Strategic inconsistencies

Proximity talks on Syria have been suspended with promises of a resumption. But reports on the ground suggest that outside powers are not ready to abandon attempts to impose military solutions, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was a hectic week for the international community dealing with the situation in Syria. Staffan Di Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, announced that the proximity talks between the Syrian government and the opposition — in the context of Security Council Resolution 2254 passed last December — would be postponed to 25 February.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia said that it is ready to send ground forces to Syria to help defeat Islamic State (IS), if ground operations are American-led. On Sunday, 7 February, the United Arab Emirates made a similar announcement. The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, was asked if his country would be ready to deploy ground troops to Syria. He replied that this “has been our position throughout”.

He continued, “We are not talking about thousands of troops, but we are talking about troops on the ground that will lead the way ... that will support ... and I think our position remains the same and we will have to see how this progresses.”

The announcement by the UAE minister came four days after a visit to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, by Lisa Monaco, assistant to the US president for homeland security and counterterrorism. The talks dealt with shared efforts between the two countries to degrade and destroy IS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Further, the two sides discussed ways of working with international partners to counter IS’s expansion beyond Iraq and Syria. In the meantime, Qatar announced on Sunday, 7 February, that it had decided to send one thousand troops to Yemen.

So while the world last December thought that the adoption of Security Council Resolution 2254 would, at long last, pave the way for a political transition in Syria, it realised one month later that this could prove a pipe dream. US Secretary of State John Kerry was emphatic last month when he said, “We need to speak out powerfully about the urgent need of Geneva to deliver a ceasefire, to deliver humanitarian assistance and to stop civilians from being bombed on a daily basis.”

Will proximity talks resume, as announced, on 25 February? Many hope they will. It all depends on how far both Moscow and Washington are willing to go in cooperating to deliver an urgent ceasefire in Syria and to push the domestic parties to the Syrian conflict to agree on some confidence-building measures, as mentioned in the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012.

These measure include the release of political prisoners, particularly women, children and the elderly, and free and unhindered access to most besieged areas within Syria. According to the United Nations, there are 18 besieged zones inside Syria. There is no doubt that both the United States and Russia could pressure their respective allies to adopt such confidence-building measures.

On the day Di Mistura announced that proximity talks would mark a temporary pause, Secretary of State Kerry called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the two agreed to keep discussing how to implement the ceasefire specifically, as well as some immediate possible confidence-building steps to delver humanitarian assitance in keeping with the UN resolution.

If both Washington and Moscow could work together to achieve such objectives, the proximity talks would be resumed and their chances of success greater. However, if the two sides, for one reason or another, are at odds, this would not favour the resumption of talks as promised by Mr Di Mistura.

The other serious challenge facing the anti-Assad coalition is the military successes that the Arab Syrian Army has been achieving on the battlefield on the northern and southern fronts, aided by a sustained Russian air campaign. Needless to say, the US administration has laid the blame for the near failure of the Geneva proximity negotiations squarely on the Russians and the Syrian government. But the truth could be different.

The regional and Arab backers of the armed groups fighting the Syrian government went to Geneva with the intent of scuttling the two Vienna statements that provided the basis for Security Council Resolution 2254. They wanted, as a matter of fact, to sidestep these two statements and limit the negotiations framework to the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, on the false premise that this communiqué is about the overthrow of President Bashar Al-Assad — or at least this their interpretation.

Nothing in this communiqué, explicitly or implicitly, calls for the departure of Al-Assad. It only talks about a transitional government with full executive powers. In plain English, that does not mean the departure of the Syrian president. The regional and Arab anti-Assad coalition wants negotiations to focus on this point and nothing else. The military successes of the Syrian army should give them pause to reconsider their strategies, which have proven futile for the last four years.

On Sunday, 7 February, there were unconfirmed reports that 75 American-trained fighters from the opposition (which group exactly is difficult to tell) entered Syria after crossing the Turkish border. Will they tip the military balance against the Syrian army? The momentum gained by the Syrians against their foes on the battlefield could be irreversible unless the United States is planning on the deployment of Arab forces in Syria against IS as cover for armed Syrian groups to regroup and stage a massive counterattack on all fronts.

If this is the case — and I earnestly hope it is not — the lines of the battle for Syria will be completely blurred. Consequently, it would be extremely difficult to predict who would win this battle, not only in Syria but across the Middle East. The fallout would be far and wide. And the world would ask the question as to who lost Syria and the Middle East. By then, it would be academic.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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