Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Opening closed doors?

Despite Russia and the US failing to agree on a solution in Syria, there are options that could overcome the international stalemate, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 8 October Russia used its veto in the UN Security Council against a French-sponsored draft resolution to stop the violence in the city of Aleppo in northern Syria. On 15 October, the Lausanne meeting attended by the foreign ministers of nine countries closely linked to the Syrian crisis failed to reach agreement.

One day later, a meeting in London attended by seven ministers of countries supporting the Syrian opposition also failed to reach agreement on ways to pressure Russia into accepting a political solution. Political efforts among the parties then ground to a halt, with Russia and the US in particular failing to agree.

However, there have been rumours that the US and the European countries are seeking other alternatives, including military options, to offset Russia’s hardline position that rejects Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s ouster from power and a transitional governing body composed of the opposition and regime and excluding Al-Assad.

Among the possibilities are imposing sanctions on Russia and increasing arms to the Syrian opposition and giving them anti-aircraft missiles to end the Russian air strikes. Some US newspapers have reported that even the assassination of Al-Assad is not off the table. However, so far these ideas have not resulted in any practical steps or a draft plan.

The pressure includes a report published on 21 October that was given to the Security Council holding the Syrian regime responsible for a third attack using poison gas. This could have paved the way for a confrontation between Russia and China on the one hand and western members of the council on the other, though this did not happen.

Russia dug in its heels, and a spokesman said conditions in Syria were “not promising,” reiterating the Russian view that the Syrian crisis can be solved in one of two ways. “Either Al-Assad sits in Damascus, or the Al-Nusra Front sits in Damascus. And in order to reach a political solution Al-Assad must be the one in Damascus,” he said.

The spokesman urged “the liberation of Syrian territories from the hands of terrorists,” a term Moscow uses to describe all the Syrian opposition factions, whether extremist groups such as affiliates of Al-Qaeda or moderates supported by the West, Turkey and the Arab countries.

The Russians have extended the ceasefire on Aleppo three times, which analysts believe has been the result of US pressure. On the ground, however, other developments have been taking place that have nothing to do with the ceasefire and indicate that there is no real consensus among the players.

The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) backed by Turkey has made gains on the ground and routed out IS from dozens of towns and villages. It has also started to surge toward major cities such as Manbaj and Afrin. There have been battles with the Kurds who have taken control of areas of Northern Syria in the hope of establishing a federation for themselves.

Turkey-backed opposition forces continue to be a force to be reckoned with in Northern Syria, and they have announced the start of the fourth phase of the Euphrates Shield Operation intended to end the siege by the Syrian regime on Aleppo.

According to Ibrahim Hemedi, a Syrian journalist, the Kurds’ ambition of a federal framework or self-administration in Northern Syria has now been dashed, however. The dream of a Syrian Kurdistan ended because of Turkey’s intervention and the opposition forces it has been backing, Hemedi commented.

“The Russians and Americans have abandoned us,” said Saleh Musallam, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party that promotes federalism and secession.

Despite the ceasefires, the Syrian regime and Iran have continued to mobilise their ground troops around Aleppo, as if the battle for the city could take place the next day. They have brought in massive military reinforcements, and the Russians have announced they are preparing for a major battle in Aleppo to end the armed resistance there.

It seems that Russia has no intention of losing its gamble on Syria and will not let go of this prize at any price. Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Syria’s difficulties to his advantage, not only to exact revenge on the West for preventing him from participating in the Arab Spring, but also because he has a dream of restoring the glory of the former Soviet era when Russia had extensive interests in the Middle East.

As a result, he has been showing off Russian weapons and succeeded in destroying East Aleppo and burying its residents under rubble. This is similar to what Moscow did in Chechnya in the Caucasus, when the Russians destroyed 98 per cent of the city at the end of the 1990s.

Russia has been taking advantage of the US silence, the unwillingness of US President Barack Obama to take action, and the international community’s avoiding any initiative to stop the Russian advances.

Yet, Mosawar Atassi, a member of the Syrian opposition, believes that while the Syrian people must prepare for a drawn-out struggle, hope may lie in “a national conference of all the political and military forces in Syria that believe in a democratic civilian state. The conference could agree on a road map to achieve the goals of the revolution and a leadership capable of connecting the political struggle with military and popular action inside and outside the country,” he said.

Another opposition figure, Mokhles Al-Khatib, believes the opposite, however, saying the crisis has passed out of Syrian hands. “The call for the UN to take charge under Chapter VII of the UN Charter is the only solution,” he said. “This is not a betrayal of the homeland, since this is now under Russian, Iranian and more recently Turkish control.”

“Syria is in a war that cannot be stopped through political negotiations. It can only be stopped by UN trusteeship put forward by the General Assembly and approved by two-thirds of its members. Even those loyal to the regime should demand this.”

Suleiman Al-Shumur, another opposition figure, supports this call, but warns that the option is based on US wishes. “It is an option available at the UN when the Security Council is unable to do its job, which is what is happening today in Syria,” Al-Shumur explained.

“We can resort to the General Assembly and ask it to make a binding decision like a Security Council resolution if this is supported by two-thirds of members. However, which country would be able and willing to implement this decision and even enter into a confrontation with Russia and its allies? The likelihood that this would be implemented if the US does not lead it is non-existent,” he said.

Another option that has emerged from France’s foreign minister argues for revising UN veto powers to prevent the paralysis of the Security Council. This proposal is significant because for the first time it has been made by a permanent member of the Security Council.

Among these difficult options, Syrian revolutionary activists are calling on the political opposition not to react too quickly, urging the need to continue the peaceful revolution and explain it to world public opinion.

The armed factions should identify themselves with the opposition’s national programme to prevent Moscow from categorising them into moderate and extremist groups and picking them off in stages, they add.

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