Syria: A Bleak Future

October 4, 2016

On February 22, the United States and the Russian Federation, Co-Chairs of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), issued the “Joint Statement on Cessation of Hostilities in Syria”. As a first reaction, even the most optimistic observers remained cautious. Pessimists were easier to find. Indeed, on the one hand this was a positive development, at least an effort to bring some though enough specificity to the hitherto broadly expressed concept of a ceasefire. And most importantly, this was the first time since the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons that Russia and the US had a detailed agreement regarding the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, the complexity of the ground situation with more than a hundred fighting groups, shifting alliances and lack of monitors were huge challenges. One could say, therefore, that the Joint Statement marked the beginning of a frustrating “ceasefire process” with many ups and downs. It was obvious that agreeing on who is a “moderate” and who is a “terrorist” would constitute a major challenge in a region characterized by murky relationships.

On February 23, Secretary Kerry said that partition of Syria could be part of ‘plan B’ if peace talks fail. According to the Guardian, the US Secretary of State told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that it “may be too late” to keep Syria as a whole and suggested that Washington would support partition if the ceasefire was unsuccessful. A few days later former CIA Director Michael Hayden told the CNN that the world was witnessing the melting down of the international order, particularly the borders drawn at Versailles. He referred to Sykes-Picot. “Iraq no longer exists. Syria no longer exists. They aren’t coming back. Lebanon is teetering and Libya is long gone…” Hayden said. He added that there is a war within Islam, the Sunni fighting the Sunni and the Sunni fighting the Shia and also struggle with what the West calls “modernity”. And, in an article published in Foreign Policy on March 9, 2016, entitled “It’s Time to Seriously Consider Partitioning Syria”, James Stavridis, a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander expressed similar views. He said:
“… Some observers have taken an initial look at a partition, which would probably include an Alawite region around Damascus, running to the sea, ruled by the Assad regime or its follow-on leaders. It would also have a central portion that hopefully over time would be run by a moderate Sunni regime, obviously after subduing the Islamic State and various al Qaeda factions. Finally, and most controversially, it might include a Kurdish enclave in the east. Obviously, the approach for a partition could range from a full break-up of the country (much as Yugoslavia broke up after the death of Marshal Josip Tito); to a very federated system like Bosnia after the Dayton Accords; to a weak but somewhat federated model like Iraq…”

While General Stavridis mentioned a “federated model like Iraq”, there are others who also speculate on a “Sunni state” comprising eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Developments since the announcement of the “cessation” have only confirmed the predictions of the pessimists. Washington and Moscow have failed to “make a difference” to use the words of Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Russia, saying that relations with the United States have deteriorated in a “radically changed environment” withdrew yesterday from the treaty on the disposal of military stockpiles of plutonium. And, the State Department announced the suspension of participation in bilateral channels with Russia established to sustain the cessation of hostilities in Syria.

UN Security Council and the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) have until now referred to a “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic” in their resolutions and statements. They may continue to do that but the realities on the ground defy them. And, Syria’s “peaceful political transition” remains an illusion because even if Assad were to leave today, Syria’s warring parties blinded by hate are most unlikely to come together to rebuild a united country. Their differences have become so deep that even partition may not necessarily mark the end of violence. Millions of Syrians have become refugees in foreign lands because they don’t see a future in their country. Thus, with over five hundred thousand dead, half the population displaced, the country devastated and what some call “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War”, Syria as it was known until six years ago is on the verge of ceasing to exist. And, President Assad’s claim to recapture every inch of Syrian territory is nothing but another illusion. Sadly, our Syrian neighbors were not fortunate enough to have their Atatürk.

More than five years into the conflict, Kuwait has now requested the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) “to convene emergency meetings at the level of permanent delegates to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria, particularly in Aleppo”. It appears that foreign ministers or heads of state and government will only get together to mourn/celebrate Syria’s passing away if they can even manage that…

As for Turkey, we share a 900 kilometer border with Syria and an almost a 400 kilometer border with Iraq. Our troops are now in Syria, fighting. Yet, in a mind boggling situation, we are busy discussing whether the Lausanne Peace Treaty which Atatürk called “a diplomatic victory unheard of in Ottoman history” had fulfilled the objectives of Turkey’s War of Liberation.

It seems that for Syria there is no light yet at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe worse still, the Middle East tunnel has no end. The best one can do is to avoid entering it…

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