Syria’s Unsustainable Conflict

31 August 2015
Efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict appear to be gaining momentum. Whatever the outcome, recent diplomatic flurry can be attributed to the following:
• The completion of the Iran nuclear deal,
• ISIL’s holding its ground in Iraq and Syria despite the US-led air campaign,
• Admission by President Assad that he is facing a recruitment problem in the armed forces raising fears that the Islamic State (ISIL) may take over should the regime fall,
• Iraq’s continuing internal instability and failure to effectively combat ISIL,
• Growing ISIL- related global concern for home security,
• The humanitarian disaster in the Middle East and the prospect of an endless influx of refugees into Europe.

On August 7, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2235(2015) which reiterated that “… no party in Syria should use, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain, or transfer chemical weapons…” and authorized the establishment a joint OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism to identify those involved in the use of chemical weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemicals in Syria. Although the Resolution was the fruit of a Western initiative against the use of barrel-bombs by the Assad regime, its final wording did not single out the Syrian Government but mentioned “…individuals, entities, groups, or governments responsible for any use of chemicals as weapons …” due to Russian objections. (Recently, there have been reports on the use of chemical weapons also by ISIL).

In his statement following its adoption, the French Representative said that the Resolution had enabled the Council to recover its unity on Syria; the Council could not have chosen silence.

Ten days later, on August 17, 2015 the UNSC approved a presidential statement on Syria. Presidential statements do not carry as much weight as resolutions and are not legally binding. Nevertheless, they reflect the sense of the Council and therefore deserve attention. The statement reaffirmed the UNSC’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria and all other States affected by the Syrian conflict…” (It is interesting that the reference to “all other States…” does not appear in UNSC’s Syria resolutions which generally contain only a commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity.) The statement also stressed that “the only sustainable solution to the current crisis in Syria is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, with a view to full implementation of the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012…”

Iran is trying to capitalize on the nuclear deal to play a more active role on the Syrian conflict by trying to push a four step plan which involves an immediate cease-fire, creation of a national unity government, rewriting Syria’s constitution to include the majority of Syrian ethnic groups and holding national elections under international supervision. At first look the plan looks reasonable enough but what happens with President Assad remains an obstacle.

I have always held the view that 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 including the Syrian conflict. Since a military solution is clearly out of the question, regional countries and others need to energize themselves to end the fighting and find ways to allow the people of Syria decide their future. Empty rhetoric has not accomplished anything.

It now appears that Russia and the US are trying once again to engage regional countries in coordinated action with the twin purposes of fighting the Islamic State and paving the ground for a political/diplomatic solution. Within a span of two days (August 25 – 26) King Abdullah of Jordan, Crown Prince Mohammed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi and President el-Sisi visited Moscow and held talks with President Putin. During his joint press conference with el-Sisi, Putin said that the two leaders had stressed the need for a broad counter-terrorism front in which the key international player and the region’s countries, including Syria would take part. El-Sisi referred to the two countries’ coinciding views on regional issues and underlined the need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis as set out in the Geneva Communiqué.

Earlier in the month, Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem was also there. After Moscow he went to Muscat giving rise to cautious optimism in view of Oman’s impressive record of quiet diplomacy. There have been reports of contacts between Saudi Arabia and the Assad regime. King Salman of Saudi Arabia is going to visit Washington in early September. Iran nuclear deal, Syria, Iraq, the Islamic State and Yemen will be high on the agenda and President Obama would probably express appreciation for the decision to allow Saudi women to vote and run in municipal elections to be held in December and urge continued reform. The challenge now facing Washington is to find some common ground between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

To put it briefly, there is against all odds, a renewed effort to bring Syria’s warring parties together. In this endeavor Turkey remains invisible for four reasons:
First, Ankara has become part of the Syrian problem and not the solution.
Second, its relations with regional countries are at an all-time low.
Third, it is busy with a new round of parliamentary elections.
And fourth, Turkey itself has failed to form a coalition government and therefore is in no position to lecture Syrian factions on the merits of national unity, compromise, give-and-take.
Remember, Turkey was supposed to be a source of inspiration for the Middle East if not a model…

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