Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Opening a solid wall?

The international community is saying there is a glimmer of hope for a political resolution of the Syrian crisis, something that seems to be contradicted by events on the ground

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nearly two years into the conflict in Syria that has escalated and become more complicated because of regional and international disputes, the international community is now trying to revive a political solution to the Syrian crisis that could stop the violence and result in democratic change, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.

However, the opposition and the people’s revolutionary movement assert that the doors to a political solution have been almost bolted because the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad continues to destroy the country which is at the centre of conflicts of interest among the international powers.

Over the past few days, movements on the regional and international stage have attempted to resurrect hopes for a political solution in Syria. The US and Russia have implied that agreement on a solution could be near, but reports reveal that their differences are still important, and events on the ground in Syria itself indicate that both the regime and armed opposition continue to depend on violence in order to achieve a military victory.

The head of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSR) dropped a bombshell recently when he agreed to dialogue with regime representatives to negotiate the departure of Al-Assad on specific conditions.

His announcement stirred the international community, though the regime insisted that it would not enter into talks unless these were based on Al-Assad’s initiative announced last month, which was immediately shot down by opposition forces inside and outside the country.

However, Western countries grabbed the opportunity, seeing it as a possible opening in a solid wall. US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was evaluating the situation in Syria and considering “diplomatic steps” to reduce the violence.

This implied that the US believed the conflict could still be resolved politically, something confirmed by US sources that said US President Barack Obama would not change his rejection of increasing the US role in the Syrian conflict, which means refusing to arm the opposition and the rejection of military intervention.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said progress could be made on the political track and that Moscow and Washington were trying to take advantage of the opportunity to launch a political dialogue on Syria.

Lavrov said that a military solution would fail and that a political solution was still the best option. He added that Al-Assad had “decided to remain in power and no one can change his mind”. Lavrov suggested dialogue “without preconditions” based on his interpretation of the Geneva Agreement signed by the international parties in June 2012.

However, each country has its own interpretation of the agreement, which does not clearly state Al-Assad’s fate. UN and Arab League special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has stated that Al-Assad cannot play a role in a transitional government in Syria.

Meanwhile, the jihadists now believed to be operating in Syria are a common denominator of US and Russian policies towards Syria because radical Islam in their view is an international issue and not merely a domestic Syrian problem.

Everything that Washington and Moscow have postponed for later is now coming back to complicate matters. Russian reliance on the Syrian regime’s hopes of settling the conflict through force has made a political solution difficult, and US hesitation to assist the opposition has opened the door to extremists.

Both powers are relying on a policy of attrition, with Moscow wanting to exhaust the opposition and the jihadists and Washington seeking to exhaust the regime and the jihadists. Other than agreeing on the issue of the jihadists, disputes between Russia and the US remain significant regarding Al-Assad’s fate, the future of the regime and opposition, the Iranian role, and the price Russia is demanding for ending its support of the Syrian regime.

As a result, Syria has become a bargaining chip in bilateral relations between the US and Russia and a battlefield for a proxy war.

Finding a political solution has also been the focus of other countries and international organisations, with Brahimi reiterating the need for dialogue despite the disappointing outcome of six months’ mission in the field. French President François Hollande recently said that the EU ban on supplying the opposition with weapons could not be lifted as long as there was a possibility of political dialogue succeeding.

The UN has announced for the umpteenth time that it supports a political solution to end the crisis, while Secretary-General of the Arab League Nabil Al-Arabi has called on the Syrian regime to implement the Geneva Agreement and form a government with a full mandate in which Al-Assad has no role.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are theoretically distant from the debate, since they have not been convinced that a political solution is viable because the Syrian regime has not shown signs of cooperating. Meanwhile, the three have been at the centre of events in practical terms, championing the opposition by supplying it with political, financial and military support in its efforts to overthrow the regime.

These countries warn that the longer the conflict lasts the stronger the extremists and jihadists will become. Speeding up the overthrow of the regime will limit the influence of radicals and of regional domination by Iran, the Syrian regime’s ally, they have also said.

The Arab Gulf states are not bound by the US and EU weapons ban on Syria, and some observers believe that they sent weapons into Syria last year, perhaps through tribal connections and smuggling networks in Iraq, Lebanon and across Turkey.

Saudi and Qatari support would be more effective if the western powers lent their political support, coordination, and counsel to these efforts, however.

European diplomats assert that Brahimi does not have a viable plan on the Syrian crisis and that his efforts to convince the regime and opposition to start talks are not promising since each side insists on preconditions. Regime figures in any dialogue would not have a full mandate and therefore would be merely the messengers for the military leadership, such diplomats say.

“Any dialogue today between the Syrian regime and the opposition will fail, even if it is under international auspices,” a senior French diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly. “There are preambles and objective conditions the regime must meet before starting negotiations with the opposition, the most important of which is to give the negotiators a full mandate.”

“There should also be a binding UN resolution on all parties to implement what is agreed on, otherwise the Syrian street will reject the talks and not recognise them.”

Loay Hassan, a moderate opposition figure and leader of the Building the State movement, said that “since the beginning of the revolution we have said that the transfer of power could be based on a proper political process, but today the conflict has become very complicated with the dominance of armed operations and the presence of armed groups with a wide variety of doctrines and ideologies. The transfer of power is now very complex and it will take a long time.”

“A military solution will not succeed. In order for Syria not to become a failed state, the powers of the president must be withdrawn and a coalition government formed that includes the regime and opposition. This government should be based on the Geneva Agreement as the foundation of the international consensus.”

Brahimi has concluded that neither regional countries nor the Syrian parties will be able to resolve the crisis and save Syria from “sepsis” or “fragmentation”. The only effective solution would be a Security Council resolution following a US-Russian agreement, he now believes.

Jordan’s King Abdullah also believes that Syria today is facing either “explosion” or “partition” and that the regime will increase its military campaigns at least until the middle of this year. He has also criticised continuing Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian regime.

Over the past few days, the regime has confirmed such predictions and has increased its firepower by using powerful long-range ballistic Scud missiles that are considered to be weapons of mass destruction. It has also continued to bomb areas where it has lost control using warplanes and heavy artillery, casting doubts over the success of any diplomatic solution to the conflict that has killed at least 70,000 Syrians.

The opposition says that its own weapons arsenal is robust after capturing several military depots packed with weapons and ammunition. It has also been receiving weapons from abroad sent in by Syrian opposition figures, Islamic associations, and foreign states. The armed opposition and some hawks in the political opposition say that firepower is what will ultimately decide the future of Syria, not political solutions.

On the ground, the revolutionary brigades are slowly making progress, while the regime is losing one position after the next. It has now lost most oil fields in northern Syria, and tens of thousands of its soldiers and militias have been killed. It has also lost control of a large swath of Syrian territory, and revolutionaries have destroyed hundreds of its tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.

The regime has also lost control of several military airports and barracks. The battles have been escalating on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, and the government is no longer able to secure fuel supplies and many basic needs of Syrian citizens.

Current conditions are grim, and the conditions, mostly foreign, needed for a political solution are not in place. There is disagreement on the interpretation of the Geneva Agreement, which seems to have been deliberately written in vague terms. There is no practical US-Russian understanding, and there are no signs that the West will supply the opposition with weapons any time soon or that Russia will be ready to accept Al-Assad’s leaving office.

Meanwhile, Iran has been interfering in the crisis, and the US’s position is unclear, whether overthrowing the regime or fighting the jihadists.

Al-Assad and the pillars of his regime will never accept a political solution that will require their departure and perhaps later prosecution. The opposition meanwhile will never accept a solution that allows Al-Assad and his regime to stay in power.

In practical terms, only one of two solutions is possible: either a binding Security Council resolution on all sides that results in regime change, or that the West decides to arm the opposition in order to overthrow the regime. Until one or other of these scenarios is chosen, the balance of power will teeter between the regime and the opposition and the conflict will become more violent.

In this scenario, many more victims will fall.

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