November 16, 2015
On September 28, hours after having delivered clashing remarks, Presidents Obama and Putin met on the sidelines of the 70th United Nations General Assembly. Three days later, on September 30, Russia started airstrikes in Syria. A month later, on October 30, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States met in Vienna and issued a communiqué on the Syria conflict. The same day, the White House announced that President Obama had ordered fewer than fifty Special Operations troops into Syria to advise local forces fighting the Islamic State (ISIL). The next day, on October 31, Russian airliner Metrojet’s Airbus flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg crashed over Sinai with 224 people on board. And finally on November 13, ISIL struck Paris claiming more than a hundred victims and leaving hundreds wounded.
The foregoing is a six-week summary of major developments related to the Syria conflict.
On Saturday, November 14, the nations and international organizations which now call themselves “International Syria Support Group” (ISSG) held their second meeting in Vienna and issued a statement which contains a roadmap towards peace (1).
As a first step, under this roadmap, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan di Mistura and others would bring together the broadest possible spectrum of the Syrian opposition. Then, formal negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition representatives would begin under UN auspices, the target date being January 1. In view of the close linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process, the ISSG would work to implement a nationwide ceasefire in Syria to come into effect as soon as the representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition begin to take initial steps towards political transition. The five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council would adopt a resolution to empower a UN-endorsed ceasefire monitoring mission in those parts of the country where monitors would not come under threat of attacks from terrorists. (The ceasefire will not apply to offensive or defensive actions against ISIL or al-Nusra or any other group which the ISSG would agree to deem as terrorist.) Hopefully within six months the Syrian-led process would establish credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance; set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. Free and fair elections would be held pursuant to the new constitution within 18 months.
A few other points from the Vienna statement:
Firstly, all members of the ISSG have pledged, “as individual countries and supporters of various belligerents” to take all possible steps to require adherence to the ceasefire by these groups or individuals they support, supply or influence. This also sounds like an admission of guilt and only time will tell whether the participants, in particular regional countries, would honor their commitment or not.
Secondly, the statement clearly puts ISIL and al-Nusra in the same category of terrorist organizations. This had been a point consistently underlined by Russia.
Thirdly, Jordan has agreed to help develop among intelligence and military community representatives a common understanding of groups and individuals for possible determination as terrorists. This endeavor would be completed by the beginning of the political process. Agreeing on who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist” would be quite an achievement in a region increasingly characterized by murky relationships.
I was disappointed to see that the reference to Syria’s “secular character” in the earlier Vienna communique of October 30, has been replaced by “non-sectarian character”. This was either intentional or the word “secularism” was lost in translation (2).
The joint press conference held by Secretary Kerry, Minister Lavrov and Staffan di Mistura following the Vienna meeting was revealing. Secretary Kerry said that neither “the dictator Bashar al-Assad” nor the terrorists are the answer to the Syrian conflict. He referred to continuing differences regarding the future of President Assad and in response to a question he said:
“… This war can’t end as long as Bashar Assad is there. That’s the perception of people waging the war. It’s not my perception. If I turned around today and said to you, “Hey, I’m okay, let’s go cut a deal and Assad can be there for a while longer,” guess what? The war won’t stop…
“… Why? Because over 300,000 people have been killed. Because people have been tortured. People have been barrel bombed. People have been gassed. People have been displaced. And it is the perception of many of the countries around the table that there is no way that Bashar al-Assad can be part of the long-term future of Syria …”
This how Minister Lavrov responded:
“As for the role of the person in the history, we had a couple of experiences with Saddam Hussein and Qadhafi, and people said that without those dictators the countries will prosper. I cannot agree therefore with the logic that Assad is the cause for everything. ISIS has not appeared three or four years ago. It is 10 years old.
“… And the Paris attacks have shown… that it doesn’t matter if you are for Assad or against him; ISIS is your enemy. So it’s not about Assad…”
Interestingly, Mr. Lavrov said that the majority of delegations taking part in the meeting were for an immediate ceasefire; but unfortunately, not all of them were prepared for that.
The Arab League was also represented at this last Vienna meeting. During the joint press conference Minister Lavrov stated that Russia was grateful for the support given to their proposal to let the Secretary General of the League of Arab States to take part in the ISSG. He also mentioned headway being made on a linked proposal to include the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the group. He said:
“I find this fundamentally important because many tried to speculate on the Syrian conflict and tried to incite hatred among the Muslims. That is why I am convinced that the participation of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation will provide consolidation efforts and to affect positively this conflict.”
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in December 2010, both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have remained totally invisible. The fact that they are now being invited to assume some role as a result of a Russian initiative should be an embarrassment to their members (3).
One would have to admit that Russian intervention in Syria appears to have been a game changer. The language and the content of the Vienna statement also give the impression that Russia has made a substantial contribution to its drafting. Whatever the chances of success there is now a roadmap towards peace.
On November 9, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was in Washington. During the joint press conference with Secretary Kerry he said that the two countries work together on the challenges they face in Syria, the challenges in Iraq, the broader problems in the Middle East, dealing with Russian aggression wherever they see it. His reference to “Russian aggression” gave the impression of going beyond Ukraine and covering also the Russian intervention in Syria.
No matter how the Ukraine conflict has evolved it would have been hard to imagine that Russia would refrain from pursuing her strategic interests in the Middle East. While some may wish Syria to turn into Russia’s new Afghanistan following her intervention, Syria has now become an arena where Moscow’s collaboration has become as indispensable as it was in securing the Iran nuclear deal. The West and Russia need to engage in cooperation in Syria not further confrontation or competition. The conflict has become too costly not only for the people of Syria but others as well. It should not be allowed to metamorphose into a “piecemeal Third World War” as the Pope Francis called the Paris massacres.
The second Vienna meeting leaves the ISSG with the task of formulating a coherent military strategy to defeat ISIL. Analysts are increasingly mentioning the need for a land force and I agree (4). Since its capture of Mosul in June 2014 ISIL has continued to hold its ground, expand and add new recruits to its ranks. And, this was not confined to Iraq and Syria. ISIL and its affiliates made new inroads into places within and well beyond the region as we have bitterly come to understand in Turkey. Paris attacks have shown that allowing them to flourish can no longer be an option. The G20 meeting in Antalya which ends today must have given world leaders an opportunity to have an exchange of views on what needs to be done.
(2) “Vienna Meeting on Syria Highlights Country’s Secularism”, November 2, 2015.
(3) “Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Middle East Fratricide” February 7, 2015
(4) “Time to Put Arab Boots on the Ground”, June 7, 2015