Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1296, (19 - 25 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Fire beneath the ashes

New proposals are needed that take the interests of the countries involved in the Syrian crisis into account as well as the goals of the revolution, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

With the Geneva negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime now stalled, the two-month US-Russian ceasefire is in virtual tatters.

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has stepped up its military operations in more than one area but particularly in the northern city of Aleppo, which has seen aggressive air strikes targeting civilians, vital civilian centres and medical personnel.

The Syrian Human Rights Network, an NGO, documented 396 violations of the ceasefire during the second round of the talks at Geneva, with the regime responsible for 93 per cent of the violations.

Conflict has raged on the ground in recent days as the fighting has spread to more than one province. Regime planes and helicopters have again begun their arbitrary shelling of civilians, while Russia has maintained the intensity of its air strikes despite announcing it was withdrawing an important part of its air forces from its bases in Syria.

Clashes between the armed resistance and the regime have returned to their previous levels, with the latter supported by allied Iranian and Lebanese militias.

With the collapse of the Russian-US brokered ceasefire that was declared on 27 February, the hopes vested in the international initiatives have evaporated. When the International Syria Support Group, a coalition of 17 nations and three international organisations, was preparing to meet in Vienna on 17 May, many hoped the meeting could lead to a US-Russian agreement and new resolutions to restore the ceasefire and jumpstart the stalled negotiations.

But these hopes ran up against not only the new Russian offensive and US indifference, but also the competing objectives of the US and its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Shortly before the Vienna meeting, US Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on a two-week international tour aimed at furthering a settlement of the Syrian conflict and cementing “a cessation of combat operations” in order to accelerate the political transition.

Following Kerry’s first stop in Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition was pessimistic, having concluded that the US was seeking a resolution with Russia alone and with no involvement from Saudi Arabia, Turkey or even the EU.

The opposition believes the US now wants to impose a Russian-inspired solution, which is unacceptable to all the other parties.

“The leadership of the political process is facing severe obstacles, the first of which is the attempt by Moscow and Washington to take sole ownership of the crisis and the US tendency to authorise Russia to determine the fate of Syria,” said Riyad Nassan Agha, spokesman for the Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiations Body.

“The EU and the allies of Syria feel that they have been excluded, although they are suffering much of the fallout from the crisis. As a result, the political process may be lost entirely, and if that happens, the region will drown in blood for many more years to come.”

The Russians and Iranians are seeking a major military victory for the regime before the next round of Geneva negotiations, but the opposition says it will not return to the negotiating table until its reasons for suspending its participation are addressed.

These include the regime’s respect for the ceasefire, an end to the siege, the entry of humanitarian assistance, and the release of detainees, all of them mandatory under UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

In contrast, the US seems more interested in conflict management than in conflict resolution. Its overriding concerns are eliminating the Islamic State (IS) group and creating a framework for a truce between the Syrian opposition and regime, with all other issues being left to the Russians.

However, the US-Russian approach is not viable in view of the multiple parties that reject it as a threat to their national security. In the run-up to the Vienna Conference it was already clear that it had little chance of success. The international community was unable to force the Syrian regime to implement the international resolutions, while Moscow, Iran and the Syrian regime sought to change the military situation on the ground.

The Syrian opposition continues to be divided between those who favour a compromise and those who reject it, while countries supporting the opposition are divided by their own divergent interests.

Local, regional and international players agree on only one thing, fighting IS, while disagreeing on nearly every other issue. None of them alone holds the key to a solution in Syria, but all of them are working to shore up the truce.

A total collapse of the ceasefire will mean a return to open warfare, the end of the Russian-US understanding, and the certain failure of the Geneva negotiations, sending those involved into an open-ended conflict with an uncertain outcome.

In light of the situation on the ground and the conflicting policies, there is little hope that another round of talks will find a mutually acceptable political solution. There is no single key to a resolution, but instead there are many keys scattered around the region. This means that the US-Russian understanding is not enough. The first and second rounds of the Geneva talks were conducted based on a baseline agreement between the two major players, the US and Russia.

But the regional powers with a stake in the crisis are also capable of obstruction, demonstrated during Kerry’s visit to Saudi Arabia when it was apparent that Riyadh was sticking to its position on the crisis despite the US pressure to bend. Saudi Arabia knows that Washington cannot afford to ignore its views and that it will not negotiate over its security or that of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

This was demonstrated again in a meeting in Paris last week that brought together several Arab and European foreign ministers. The Europeans rejected US attempts to monopolise the Syrian issue with the Russians, while regional powers proved they were capable of throwing a wrench into Russian-American plans. With their influence within Syria and with the political and armed opposition, they can forestall any unsatisfactory international understanding.

The Syrian opposition and most European nations have been asking the US to clarify its stance on implementation of the international resolutions on Syria, as well as its vision for the transitional phase, the new executive body and the future of Al-Assad.

But the Obama administration continues to evade these demands, simply issuing the same conventional statements. For the US, the resolution of the Syrian crisis is linked to other, larger issues, from Ukraine to the growing controversy over the establishment of a US missile shield in Romania, followed by Turkey and Poland.

This has angered Russia and led it to dig its heels in on Syria as long as Washington refuses to negotiate on these and other issues.

The Syrian regime and Iran see current US policy as a golden opportunity to further their military objectives, as articulated by Al-Assad in a telegram to his Russian counterpart.

The Syrian army, Al-Assad said, “will accept nothing less than a final victory,” in other words, a military resolution supported by Russia and Iran. Russia is no longer worried about the “Plan B” alluded to by Kerry a month ago, since the present US administration has little time left to consider such a plan.

Both Iran and Russia are intent on a military victory, motivated by the belief that a shift in the military balance will be the regime’s trump card and allow it to impose its conditions in talks with the opposition and its international and regional supporters while weakening Washington and its allies.

However, the Syrian opposition is also sticking to “the demands of the revolution,” refusing to concede even in the face of US pressure. It is affirming its support for all the UN Security Council Resolutions, stressing that these are binding on all the parties.

“There is no possibility of the Syrian opposition abandoning its basic revolutionary demands,” Sanharib Mirza, a member of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The documents presented by the Higher Negotiations Body to the UN envoy in the previous rounds reiterate that a political transition from the current regime to a democratic one is the objective of the negotiating process. Everything else lies outside the core of legitimate international resolutions.”

Such obstacles and competing interests indicate that even though the US and Russia have set a new date for the continuation of the Geneva talks, the crisis is not necessarily on the way to a resolution.

The multiplicity of regional and international players in the Syrian crisis, together with their conflicting interests, means that a full and detailed programme for the negotiations must be agreed upon in advance or imposed through binding UN resolutions.

This programme must show due regard for the Syrian people’s demand for a change in the political and security regime that has killed nearly half a million Syrians. If not, the fire of change will continue to burn beneath the ashes.

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