Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

No breakthrough on Syria

No real progress was made on finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis at last week’s UN General Assembly meeting in New York, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

 

No breakthrough on Syria
No breakthrough on Syria

اقرأ باللغة العربية


The Syrian people were disappointed last week when having had their hopes pinned on the meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that took place on the fringes of the General Assembly meeting in New York for any signs of consensus on a roadmap to halt the war, they were treated instead to sessions that focused only on human rights concerns and had no bearing on a political or military solution.

The speeches made by the leaders of the major powers at the General Assembly meeting were also big on passion but short on substance.

Calling for the meeting to take place, France hoped to persuade the permanent Security Council members to adopt French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for the creation of a contact group on Syria made up of Security Council members and influential regional powers in order to bring an end to the seven-year conflict.

The day before the meeting, Macron voiced his opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, in keeping with French policy since the revolution began in 2011. The Syrian people had the right to elect their next leader, he said, referring to Al-Assad as a “criminal” who “should be prosecuted and made to answer for his crimes before the international court.”

However, “out of pragmatism, I have not made his dismissal a prerequisite” for talks, he added, putting in a nutshell the initiative that France presented to the UN Security Council.

The initiative will please Al-Assad because it means he will remain in power during the interim phase, but it was also designed to please the Syrian opposition because it seemed to guarantee that he would leave after that phase.

The Syrian opposition, officially invited to attend the General Assembly session, tried to take advantage of the international forum to rally support among the major stakeholders in the Syrian crisis for the application of the Geneva I Declaration which provides for the handover of authority to a transitional body that would exercise full executive powers and consist of representatives of the opposition and the present regime.

Riyad Hijab, chief coordinator of the opposition’s Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC), stated that the French initiative “puts paid to attempts on the part of the Syrian regime’s allies to monopolise the formulation of a political solution to suite their expansionist ambitions and agendas for extending their influence beyond their borders.”

However, the French proposal to create an international contact group on Syria to promote and facilitate a negotiated solution to the crisis was greeted coolly by Washington. The latter’s desire to sideline Iran limited the chances of the initiative, dooming its prospects of being approved by the council.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson convened a two-day meeting of the foreign ministers of 16 countries, among them Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Also present were representative of the European Union for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini and UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

Following the meeting, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs David Satterfield said that the participants had agreed that “military actions alone, security actions alone, while they bring violence ultimately down, do not produce a stable Syria. Only a credible political process that reflects the will of the majority of Syrians can achieve that goal.”

Summing up the US position, he said that “we’ve made clear many times that we do not believe at the end of this process that Al-Assad should remain, that he has lost his legitimacy and his right to rule. But that is a decision for the Syrian people to make. That is the outcome of the process. The process itself has to begin, has to be launched.”

He added that the hope was to empower the process and move it forward as rapidly as possible so that at the end there would be “an intact, non-partitioned, independent Syria, a Syria which is not a proxy for any external state – Iran or anyone else. That was the universal goals and the priorities, the sequencing expressed by [all the foreign ministers in the meeting with Tillerson in New York].”

The US stance was echoed by British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson who said that “we believe that the only way forward is to get a political process going and to make it clear to the Iranians, Russians and Al-Assad regime that we, the like-minded group, will not support the reconstruction of Syria until there is such a political process and that means, as [UN Security Council] Resolution 2254 says, to a transition away from Al-Assad.” 

As satisfying as these statements may be to the Syrian opposition and the many countries that do not support the Syrian regime, it is difficult to gauge how seriously the US will follow them through, transforming them into clear and binding programmes on the ground. Six years of US passivity and lack of resolve on the Syrian question, during which more than half a million people have died, do not offer encouragement.

While the French president and his foreign minister, as well as the US secretary of state, dismissed the significance of the Russian-sponsored Astana meetings in Kazakhstan, saying that they would not bring peace and security to Syria, the new President of the UN General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák praised the Astana process.

“The Astana process had become a real salvation in the Syrian conflict,” he said in a meeting with Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov on 19 September at the UN in New York. He also lauded “Kazakhstan’s constructive role in international affairs, first of all in disarmament and conflict resolution”. 

Also on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meetings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated their countries’ commitment to reducing the level of violence in Syria, averting clashes while carrying out combat operations in the country and generating the conditions needed to move forward the Geneva process in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

However, Lavrov also stressed that the US forces in Syria were not there at the request of the Syrian government. “We confirmed our position that, despite the recognition of the presence of the American Coalition in Syria, it is still an uninvited guest,” he told reporters after the meeting. 

The Russians have made frequent references to the status of the US intervention in Syria under international law in contrast to their own. The Russians have been invited in by the Syrian regime, and it has given Moscow the right to operate military, sea and air bases in Syria for 50 years and made numerous other provisions that are prejudicial to the Syrian state. Both the Russians and the regime use this as a pretext to justify their mutual support.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria itself the city of Deir Al-Zor is currently the most prominent arena of hostilities. The forces of the Syrian regime and its allied militias and the predominantly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are rivalling to oust the Islamic State (IS) group from the area, with the Russians and Iranians backing pro-Syrian regime forces and the Americans backing the SDF.

It appears that neither group of forces can enter Deir Al-Zor on their own, and they have been manoeuvring around the city to position themselves more advantageously.

The battle of Deir Al-Zor will be crucial to determining the international and regional zones of influence on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. It will determine the features of the New Middle East, the future of the Iranian project in it, the level of US involvement in the region, the extent of the indulgence of the Kurds and the anticipated role of the Sunni paramilitary group Hashd Al-Ashaari in the region.

It seems very likely that the battle of Deir Al-Zor will thus precipitate further regional and international complications. 

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