Fighting rages in Syria despite international efforts to impose a ceasefire and advance a peace plan. How remote are the prospects for peace in Syria?
A hospital destroyed in northern Syria, 15 February 2016 (EPA/Sam Taylor/Médecins Sans Frontières handout)
Fighting continues in Syria despite international efforts to impose a ceasefire and advance a peace plan. World powers agreed last week to cease hostilities so that humanitarian aid could reach besieged areas, but the ceasefire is not scheduled to take effect until later this week, and not all parties to fighting agreed to the deal. Peace talks were suspended after only three days last week. Turkey on Tuesday appealed to allies including the United States to take part in a joint ground operation in Syria as a Moscow-backed government advance neared it border.
We asked four News-Decoder correspondents for their views on the prospects for peace in Syria.
‘All Assad will want to discuss is the surrender of his adversaries.’
– Alistair Lyon
It is not clear if last week’s Syria truce plan announced by the United States, Russia and other powers will even calm fighting long enough to allow relief supplies into besieged areas. Peace talks are supposed to resume in Geneva soon, but any hope that these will halt the killing and produce an agreed solution seems far-fetched. The diplomacy looks more like a fig-leaf for U.S. impotence to prevent a looming military “solution”. For Moscow, it might help fend off criticism of its bombing of Syrian rebels and the accompanying civilian death toll.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fortunes have revived sharply thanks to Russian intervention and ground support from Iran and its Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’ite militia allies. Their commitment to Assad has dwarfed the arms-length efforts of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others to stiffen rebel fighters now staring at defeat of their five-year insurgency. U.S. refusal to supply anti-aircraft missiles, for fear these might seep to Islamist militants, has left the rebels defenseless against Russian warplanes. And with the prize of Aleppo, Syria’s former economic hub, beckoning, Damascus and its allies have no incentive to let up.
Assad has vowed to retake all of Syria and keep fighting “terrorists” — meaning all his opponents. Even if he consolidates control over the main cities in the west, that will still leave Islamic State in its eastern strongholds, targeted by U.S.-led bombing, but only rarely under Russian attack. Syrian Kurds are also pursuing their own interests. While Assad’s forces press their offensive around Aleppo, a Kurdish group viewed as terrorists by Ankara but as allies against Islamic State by Washington, has been expanding its enclaves near the Turkish border.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are among those backing the truce deal, but it remains to be seen whether they will help “deliver” the compliance of the Damascus government or its enemies. Assad has shown himself ready to destroy and depopulate his own country to cling to power. He was defiant when rebels had the upper hand a year ago. Now with the military tide in his favor, all he will want to discuss is their surrender.
‘The Americans can do little now but watch and wait.’
– Jonathan Lyons
A mixture of disarray and disinterest has left Washington holding a weak hand in talks to resolve the Syrian crisis on anything like its own terms. Instead, Russia and Iran have run circles around American diplomacy, all but ensuring their shared ally President Bashar al-Assad, or an acceptable successor regime, remains in power for the foreseeable future.
The regime is likely to take back more of the country from so-called moderate rebels who have been abandoned by Washington, unable to protect them from Russian airstrikes launched under the pretext they are targeting Islamic State “terrorists.”
Russia has used the conflict to serve notice to the West that Moscow once again matters in world affairs. In doing so, it exposed U.S. weakness in the Middle East — now further highlighted by the Iran nuclear deal.
Tehran skillfully exchanged a “vaporware” atomic bomb for everything on its wish list: an end to sanctions; offers of European investment; leverage against rival Saudi Arabia; and continued influence in Iraq, via Shia militias, and in Lebanon, via Hezbollah.
Today, Russia and Iran are in positions of strength, with no incentives to undercut their geopolitical positions or to dump a valued ally. The Americans can do little now but watch and wait.
‘Assad is the problem, not the solution.’
– Harvey Morris
Some things you just couldn’t make up. Like when Giovanni Gambino, scion of the New York crime family, recently assured residents of traditional Mafia neighborhoods of the city they had nothing to fear from Islamic State terrorists.
“As with everything in life, there are good, bad and ugly parts. The rise of global terrorism gives the Mafia a chance to show its good side,” he told an Italian website. “We make sure our friends and families are protected from extremists and terrorists, especially the brutal, psychopathic organisation that calls itself the Islamic State.”
Mr. Gambino has perhaps unconsciously hit on a handy analogy between organised crime and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Both offer protection, but it comes at a price. Get out of line and it’s a bullet in the knee-cap or a barrel bomb through the roof. Too bad if there is a war. Civilians will always be caught in the crossfire.
The reality is that like the Mafia, Assad is the problem not the solution. If it’s Islamic State you’re worried about, there’s little evidence the Syrian dictator or his Russian friends have done much to push it back. That job has been left to the Kurds and other rebel groups.
If Syria was a mob war, some might suggest getting all the families together to settle their differences, including the gang that started it. That might buy some temporary peace and quiet for the neighborhood. But in the end you’d still have the mob.
‘Washington is determined to bring some sort of peace to Syria.’
– Rashad Mammadov
Continuation of the civil war in Syria will result in serious disturbances in the European Union. Spring is coming, and with it we will see another wave of refugees from affected regions of Syria and Iraq. The consequences for the EU could be devastating. There is already talk about the future of the Schengen zone. Back in January, Donald Tusk gave the EU two months to solve the migrant crisis.
So, the military conflict in Syria can create serious political tension in Europe. This is of crucial importance to the United States. In the worst case, it could lose its most powerful ally. So, the war has to end or European nations will start questioning the very existence of the Union.
This is clearly not acceptable to the Obama administration, so Washington is putting pressure on the parties to the Syrian conflict.
When Russia insisted on keeping al-Assad in power, the U.S. Treasury openly called him corrupt, signaling that further sanctions could be in the offing. This was the first time that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally mentioned and attacked.
When Turkey began to actively protect its interests in the conflict, Obama’s special representative paid a visit to Kurdish leaders. That was a signal that Turkey is not America’s only ally in the region.
Saudi Arabia might feel threatened by the thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. Iran, in turn, is still waiting for most of its $100 billion worth of frozen assets to be returned.
Kurdish peshmerga and Syrian rebels are both highly dependent on U.S. military aid.
All of these factors explain why diplomats returned to the negation table right after the Geneva talks failed. Washington is determined to bring at least some sort of peace and stability to Syria.
Alistair Lyon worked for 30 years for Reuters, covering conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began his reporting career in Lebanon and headed Reuters bureaux in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He also spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.
Jonathan Lyons served as a foreign correspondent and editor for Reuters for more than two decades, much of that time in the Muslim world. He is the author of three books on the region. He lectures frequently on the relationship between Islam and the West, and is currently working on a revisionist history of the Muslim world.
Harvey Morris has been a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and the Financial Times. He has covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas. He is the author of three books on the Middle East, including the best-selling “Saddam’s War”
Rashad Mammadov is a PhD candidate at Indiana University’s Media School, with a research focus on political communication. He holds a master’s degrees in journalism and mass communication. He worked as a reporter and editor for almost a decade in newspapers and magazines covering international politics and media economics.