Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Helplessness in Syria

With the International Syria Support Group adopting unworkable resolutions on the Syrian crisis, many Syrians fear an expansion of the armed conflict, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Pointless and ineffective — this was how the Syrian opposition described the outcome of the meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Vienna on 17 May.

The meeting, which brought together representatives of 17 countries, ended with resolutions relating to humanitarian aid and the truce, but made no headway on the political transition. It also failed to set a date for the resumption of negotiations, in the framework of the Geneva III Conference, between the Syrian opposition and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

The assembled countries adopted two resolutions. The first, regarding the truce that has largely collapsed in most parts of the country, demands that any party that violates the ceasefire be subject to sanctions and denied the protection provided by the ceasefire resolution.

The second proposes airdrops of humanitarian aid in areas besieged by the regime by early June if the usual avenues for entry are blocked. The meeting also set August as the target deadline for the formation of a transitional governing body with full powers, though this falls short of setting a final deadline.

The participating countries failed to agree on a date for the resumption of the negotiations between the warring parties in Syria.

The five hours of discussions between the representatives of ISSG member states demonstrated the depth of the gap between the US-Russian agenda on Syria and the European and regional agenda. Representatives of the European countries, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all objected to US policies that are attempting to exclude them. But among themselves they also all disagree on fundamental issues.

“Airdrops of humanitarian aid represent a tepid American response to the Syrian regime’s refusal to lift its blockade of several areas, affecting about a million besieged civilians,” Syrian opposition member Abdullah Ali said. “At the same time, it’s an admission of the international community’s inability to persuade or compel the regime to allow the entry of aid to those under siege.”

He continued, “The decision to sanction parties that break the truce is useless. It’s too general and is not based on mechanisms to monitor the ceasefire. It needs an army of observers and extremely effective logistical tools. It also leaves the assessment and levying of sanctions against violators to the ISSG, not the UN Security Council.”

Some members of the Syrian opposition’s Higher Negotiations Body, which is taking part in the Geneva negotiations, said that the meeting was “the worst by far” because it represented an attempt to impose an agenda based on the Russian-US understanding, which reflects the objectives of the Syrian regime and Iran.

This week, the Syrian Kurds, with the full assistance of the US, began preparing an assault on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, which they hope to annex to the federal state they declared earlier this year, cementing a separatist Kurdish entity in northern Syria.

The Turks and the Americans, with Saudi and Qatari support, also began creating a northern army to include factions of the armed opposition in northern Syria as a prelude to taking on the regime and Iran in the northern city of Aleppo and expelling IS from the border strip near Turkey.

The army will be led by the Turkish-backed Nour Al-Din Al-Zanki Brigade, which is fighting the Kurds in northern Syria. In other words, the US is now supporting two antagonistic and warring parties — the Kurds and the Turks.

Massive Turkish-Saudi military exercises have begun in Turkey between the cities of Ankara and Izmir to prepare for a new reality in northern Syria. The step is being undertaken without US coordination. At the same time, an Iranian military division including forces from Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been deployed around Aleppo.

They are supported by thousands of fighters from Lebanese and Iraqi sectarian militias, as well as Syrian regime fighters, in preparation for an offensive against the city, large parts of which are under the control of the Syrian opposition.

The Iran-backed Lebanese Hizbullah group announced that it would not withdraw from Syria “under any circumstances” and would continue fighting in support of the regime.

Meanwhile, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia will resume the intensive use of air power at the end of this week, shelling Syrian opposition forces that it says are not complying with the ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Americans have refused to coordinate combat operations in Aleppo with the Russians and are working unilaterally.

All of these military actions are the indirect result of the Vienna meeting, as all the parties are seeking to cement their presence on the ground and expand their areas of influence in Syria. Counter-terrorism and expelling IS are given as the pretext for these actions, but the more important objective is positioning themselves to strengthen their forces on the ground and redraw the lines between the warring parties and the interim balance of power.

This presages a potential division of northern Syria into two parts: the first, east of the Euphrates, held by Kurdish separatists, and the second, west of the Euphrates, held by the Turks and Syrian opposition. This would cement the presence of Iranian military forces from west of the Lebanese border to nearly the centre of Syria, while also giving the regime a permanent foothold in Aleppo, which has been considered a stronghold of the armed opposition.

The armed opposition would be the most exposed party in such an arrangement. Its brigades are scattered, its leaders hold different ideologies and it lacks powerful, effective weaponry.

But it hopes that its allies can set up a secure zone where it can operate from in northern Syria. It also hopes its allies will equip it with more advanced weaponry, particularly anti-aircraft weapons, allowing it to withstand assaults from Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime on the one side and IS and Al-Nusra Front on the other.

As for the Syrian political opposition, it is currently occupied with answering the 29 questions posed by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to all the Syrian parties in the crisis. The questions concern the nature of the transitional governing body and its operation during the transitional phase, as well as the presidency and executive authorities, oversight of the military and security establishments, standards for the establishment of a national army, and preferred constitutional frameworks for transitional governance.

The questions are complex and open-ended, and could involve the opposition in a morass of details that will take its attention away from the battlefield. The opposition is also pessimistic about the potential for a third round of the Geneva Conference. Abdulbaset Sieda, an opposition leader, said he could detect “no effective international will to reach an acceptable political solution in Syria”.

“What the Syrian opposition is hearing is just general talk without any finite mechanisms or timeframes binding on the regime or its allies,” Sieda said.

The international strategic conflict is not only about Syria. Russia hopes to extract concessions from the US as the price of finding a solution satisfactory to the opposition, but the US has so far refused to give Russia any breaks on international issues.

Many Syrians believe that in the coming period the armed conflict will increase in its scope and violence while a political solution will remain stalled until early next year when the foreign policy priorities of the incoming US administration begins to take shape. In the meantime, military power will have the final say. Because of this, it is feared that the opposition will be pressured to accept a solution devised by the US and Russia.

Since the ceasefire was declared on 27 February, the Syrian opposition has documented more than 2,000 violations by the regime. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an NGO, says that the regime has been responsible for 93 per cent of the violations and that it has committed 30 massacres, 13 in Aleppo alone, shelling hospitals and health facilities run by international organisations with no international power apparently able to stop it.

Instead, the international parties are proposing a permanent ceasefire that will be impossible to monitor. Some observers believe this reflects their inability to meet the conditions set by the Syrian opposition for a return to the negotiations. Darker days now await the Syrian people, perhaps even more difficult than those seen over the last five years.

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