Syria Conflict Enters Its Fifth Year

17 March 2015

During the past four years of internal strife more than two hundred thousand Syrians lost their lives. Almost half the population is either internally displaced or living as refugees in neighboring countries. Homes and infrastructure are in ruins. “Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)” founded in October 2006 has turned into ISIL extending its reach to Syria. The UN has been a bystander. The region remains as divided as ever. The problem is no longer just the Syrian conflict but also proxy wars in Libya and Yemen. Nobody would admit a mistake but this is a disaster situation.

Of course the current picture is the result of an accumulation of mistakes. Western approach to the region should have been less selfish, less interventionist and more consistent. It should have had a long-term perspective. Regional countries should have engaged in serious political and economic reform long ago. They should have acted collectively to reduce the risks of sectarian strife. So, on the one hand this is a time to reflect on the past to chart a course for the future. But on the other hand, this is a time to act.

There are two immediate and interlinked challenges: Dealing with ISIL and stopping the carnage in Syria. It appears that for the West the former has now gained priority over the latter since it represents a clear and present danger to homeland security. Iraq’s putting the Tikrit offensive on hold testifies to the difficulties involved in degrading and defeating ISIL.

In August 2014, Sir Malcolm Rifkind – the chairman of British Parliament’s intelligence and security committee and a former foreign and defense secretary – told the Financial Times that sometimes one has to develop relationships with people who are extremely nasty in order to get rid of people who are even nastier. He was referring to the Assad regime and ISIL.
Last Friday, CIA Director John Brennan said that the U.S. doesn’t want to see a chaotic collapse of the Syrian regime as it could be replaced by Islamist extremists such as ISIL or al-Nusra. He reiterated the view that the future governance of Syria is not going to be resolved on the battlefield and so needs a political solution. As for Iran he stated that there is an alignment of some interests between the US and Iran when it comes to fighting Islamic State and that both countries work closely with the Iraqi government.

And last Sunday Secretary Kerry said: “We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can re-ignite a diplomatic outcome.” Thus he expressed a readiness to revive the Geneva process because even a temporary cessation of hostilities in Syria would enable the coalition to focus on ISIL. But his statement drew reactions from French and Turkish Foreign Ministers who once again raised objections to dealing with Assad. Mr. Fabius later stated that Secretary Kerry had assured him that there was absolutely nothing new in the American position on Syria.

All of this is a reflection of helplessness and frustration in the face of the Syrian conflict. Since there is general agreement that there is not going to be a military solution to the Syria’s problems, regional countries and others need to take a fresh look at what can reasonably be done to contain the conflict and find ways to allow the people of Syria decide their future. Restating well-known positions has not accomplished much.

The Iranian nuclear program further complicates the current picture. The P5+1-Iran talks have already enhanced Iran’s international standing. If a deal is reached this would further elevate Tehran’s status. Beyond the nuclear issue the US sees such an agreement as an investment in the future and hopes that this would lead Iran to assume a more responsible international role. But the Syria/ISIL problem cannot wait long enough for this investment to mature. So the attitude Iran would take towards the Syria/ISIL challenge could be the first political test for a “nuclear deal”. Iran is already fighting ISIL in Iraq and so far this seems to be appreciated in Washington in spite of growing concern about Sunni sensitivities. But the real test remains Iran’s willingness to contribute to a political solution in Syria with or without a nuclear deal.

I have for long held the view that regardless of past mistakes on the part of many, without regional countries’ agreement on a common strategy or at least lowest common denominators there would be no way out of the Arab Spring crises.

My American colleague in Riyadh in the early 90s, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr. has recently voiced a similar expectation (http://chasfreeman.net/responding-to-failure-reorganizing-u-s-policies-in-the-middle-east/) in these words:
“There is an ineluctable requirement for Muslim leadership and strategic vision from within the region. Without it, the existing political geography of the Arab world – not just the map drawn by Sykes-Picot – faces progressive erosion and ultimate collapse. States will be pulled down, to be succeeded by warlords, as is already happening in Iraq and Syria. Degenerate and perverted forms of Islam will threaten prevailing Sunni and Shi`a religious dispensations, as Daesh now does…”

We may keep hoping but time is passing…

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