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Why the Syrian Conflict Defies Political Solutions
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By Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman

Two consecutive rounds of negotiations under the Geneva II peace process to resolve the Syrian conflict have ended up in fiasco. Neither the government nor the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella organization for diverse and often clashing rebel groups, found a common thread to tie them together to hammer out a negotiated political settlement of the three-year old conflict. Divisive issues and irreconcilable objectives instead kept them poles apart. Whilst the opposition demanded the government negotiate a ‘transitional governing body’ with full executive powers, as put forth in the Geneva communique of June 2012, that excludes President Bashar Al-Assad, the government delegates insisted that the opposition commit to fighting terrorism first. There is no guarantee that a third round of negotiations, if held at all, will pull Syria out of the ongoing carnage – with over 130,000 lives already lost and millions more internally displaced or forced to seek refuge in neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

The media interpretations are that Geneva II negotiations got off the ground with no realistic prospects of success. Iran, a country deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, was absent from peace talks. US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva with the precondition: ‘Assad must go’ which President Obama first set in August 2011. In his opening speech John Kerry said: “You cannot save Syria with Bashar Al-Assad in power” that prompted the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to retort: “No one in the world has the right to confer or withdraw the legitimacy of a president, a constitution or a law, except for the Syrians themselves”.  To make things worse, the Syrian government, before the start of Geneva II negotiations, put the opposition delegates on its list of terrorists.  These unhelpful developments undercut the peace potential of Geneva II but they do not go deep into dissecting the actual reasons why the Syrian conflict keeps dragging on and why a negotiated political solution remains so difficult.

The Syrian conflict is a highly complex conflict characterized by a multiplicity of actors and interests. This Arab heartland is home to multiple religious groups and sects, diverse ethnic conglomerates, bitterly opposing political groups and cultural heterogeneities. The conflict permeates the social, cultural, political and religious fabrics of Syria and spills over national border creating destabilizing consequences for the entire Middle East. Political and military contestations, generated by the conflict, are taking place along three distinct but interwoven levels – at the national level between the opposing Syrian groups, at the regional level between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for regional dominance, and at the global level between the US and Russia for protection of their strategic interests.

For Syria, no piecemeal efforts like Geneva II can bring peace; only a comprehensive approach involving all parties at all levels with a commitment to compromise is the key to a negotiated settlement. A critical look at the dynamics of contestations taking place at the three interrelated levels vindicates this argument.

Contestations at the national level

The Arab Spring that landed in Syria in March 2011 clearly divided the country into two rival camps of sworn enemies – the government and its supporters on the one hand and the anti-government diverse rebel groups under the banner of the SNC, on the other. The government side includes the ruling Syrian Ba’ath Party, most of the armed forces and security apparatus and an alliance between the government and the powerful Sunni business elites primarily based in Damascus. The opposition consists of marginalized political groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, previously jailed leaders and the economically less privileged Sunni majority people who dominate the demographic and religious map of Syria. Deep discontents against the long rule of the Al-Assad family already existed in Syria; the Arab Spring created the opportune moment, as it did in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, for the aggrieved Syrians to violently protest against the Al-Assad rule.

What initially started as peaceful protests gradually culminated in a bloody civil war. The first two years of the war (March 2011 – December 2012) saw a string of rebel victories that put nearly half of the Syrian territories under rebel control. The battle of al-Qusayr (19 May – 5 June 2013), a strategically important city close to the Syria–Lebanon border and used by the rebels as a vital supply route from Lebanon to Homs and other rebel strongholds, changed the course of the war in favor of the government and put the rebels on the run.

Supported by the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, government troops gradually reversed rebel territorial gains in the north and east of the country and other areas adjacent to Damascus by the end of 2013. The recent near elimination of the West-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) by the Islamic Front fighters, who overran FSA headquarters and captured its US-supplied arms warehouses, and the continuing corrosive infighting between the Islamic Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have further strengthened the government’s position. The Geneva II peace conference took place against this backdrop with no serious commitment from the government to honestly negotiate peace.

In Damascus, the impression is that loyal troops and pro-government militias are winning the war; negotiation with the loser rebels is not a good option. The government delegation rather went to Geneva as a free rider; it was not a party to the Geneva Communique of 2012 and not bound by the terms and conditions of the communique – the basis of Geneva II peace talks. Except Russia, China and Iraq, all signatories to the Geneva Communique are supporters of the SNC.
The opposition, represented by the Istanbul-based SNC, was obviously the weaker party to Geneva II. Battered by internal disunity and dissensions, the SNC has often vacillated in its resolve to stand up to the government. Thirteen of its constituent members had differing views on the issue of participation in Geneva talks and they finally quit the SNC. Ahmad Al Jarba, the SNC leader, was pushed to his current position by Saudi Arabia and is perceived more as a Saudi agent than a true representative of the Syrian opposition. He comes from the Shammar tribe whose tribal origin and settlements overlap Syria and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, powerful rebel groups, such as the Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, and the Islamic Front declared in advance that they would not respect the outcomes of Geneva II.  Though SNC had sent a delegation to Geneva II, it was not a free decision of its own. The US and Britain created tremendous pressures on it to participate by threatening aid cuts and withdrawal of support.  The SNC, as a result, joined negotiations not as the legitimate representative of the broad-based Syrian opposition and its capacity to engage in substantial negotiations was questionable.

Contestations at the regional level

The complex nature of the Syrian conflict has unfailingly drawn in the two regional heavyweights – Iran and Saudi Arabia who are locked in a battle for dominance in the Middle East region. Syria is Iran’s only strategic Arab partner and a highly valuable link to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. The outbreak of armed conflict and the probable collapse of the Bashar Al-Assad government seriously threatened Iran’s room for strategic maneuverability.  Tehran, already reeling under stringent European and US sanctions over the nuclear issue, could hardly afford to lose Syria.

Fall of the Assad government could produce two immediate dire consequences for Tehran: i) the imminent specter of credible threats from US military bases all around, the Arab adversaries on the west coast of the Gulf and a hostile Israel from the northwest; and ii) a roll back of its nuclear program under coercive pressures from Washington and Tel Aviv. To avoid being strategically paralyzed and forced into submission, Iran responded to the Syrian conflict by sending military advisors, arms and economic aid for the Assad government.  This has so far kept the self-styled ‘axis of resistance’ (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) intact to face their regional and Western adversaries – Israel, the Gulf monarchs and the US.

Saudi involvement in the Syrian conflict, on the contrary, was driven by its perceived strategic interests to curtail Iran’s regional dominance and contain the rise of the Shi’ites after Iraq, a Shi’ite majority Arab country, had moved closer to Tehran following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011. Riyadh had already taken an anti-Shi’ite position by sending troops to Bahrain on 14 March 2011 to crush the Shi’ites-led pro-democracy movements. Iran branded the Saudi military move as “an invasion of Bahrain”. Saudi anti-Shi’ite position was tersely expressed by an Arab official soon after the deployment in Bahrain: “King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain – never”. 

In Syria, Saudi Arabia has sought quite the opposite goal of unseating the Shi’ite Alawite-supported Al-Assad government and drive Iran out of Syria by installing a Sunni government in Damascus. The Saudis did not hesitate to exploit the Syrian conflict as a Shi’ite – Sunni conflict and openly support the Sunni rebel groups politically, financially and by sending Salafist fighters to Syria.  The Saudis, at the same time, disappointingly banked on the US to militarily strike the Al-Assad government, especially after the 21 August 2013 chemical attacks on a Damascus neighborhood al-Ghuota, but that did not materialize.

Saudi Arabia’s tiny ally Qatar has similarly championed the cause of the Syrian Sunnis. Emboldened by its role in NATO intervention to oust the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, Qatar has tried political, diplomatic and financial tools to bring down the Assad government but to no avail. Joint Saudi and Qatari efforts have so far failed to change the reality on the ground in Syria while Iran and its ally Hezbollah hold the upper hand.

Iran’s strategic position has further improved following the signing of the interim nuclear deal, which the Saudis and the Israelis bitterly resented and attempted to foil, with the West on 24 November 2013. That clearly means Iran is a serious stakeholder in the Syrian peace process and its involvement is a precondition for the success of peace talks. Iran is probably looking for a package deal with the US involving the issues of nuclear program, Western recognition of Tehran’s regional power status and the protection of its strategic allies – Syria and Hezbollah. There seems to be little possibility of a breakthrough on the Syrian front until Iran and the US negotiate their great strategic bargain in the next few months.

Contestations at the global level

Russian and American involvements in the Syrian conflict are driven partly by their direct strategic interests and partly by the concerns for their allies. It was no surprise that Russia came to the direct defense of the Assad government, a longtime ally that provides Moscow a direct foothold in the Middle East, buys Russian military hardware and equipment, extends a naval facility to the Russian navy in the eastern Mediterranean sea and, in turn, enjoys Russian diplomatic and military support to stave off Western and Israeli pressures. Russia’s vigorous defense of Syria at the UN Security Council speaks of their common strategic interests. Moscow’s post-Soviet diplomatic activism under President Vladimir Putin clearly views Syria as a ‘no-negotiable’ case with the US. A change of regime in Syria, what the US means by “Assad must go”, would seriously question Russia’s credibility in the international diplomatic arena. It nicely dovetails with Iran’s policy of defending the Assad government and put the three countries on the same strategic page.

US response to the Syrian conflict, in contrast, was defined by its objective to weaken Iran by weaning Syria away and reduce the number of Arab governments hostile to Israel. A pro-Western government in Damascus will surely relieve Israel of military pressures on the Golan Heights front and allow Tel Aviv to exclusively focus on Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet, there is hardly any direct American strategic interest in Syria requiring intervention and that explains why Washington has never sought to get directly militarily involved in the Syrian civil war. The New York Times reported on 21 August 2012 that America’s interests in Syria intervention dissipated because of a fear of drawing in Syria’s allies Iran and Russia and that the Syrian civil war did not directly threaten US interests.  This is a clear departure from its military role in Libya under the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’. Washington basically sticks to this policy till today, though it keeps insisting that ‘Assad must go’. In a broader perspective, the policy of non-intervention in Syria also fits Washington’s new ‘Asia pivot’ policy to counter China’s rise in East Asia and on the global stage.  

After the failure of Geneva II, the US is reviewing its Syria policy to send heavy weapons to the rebels to reverse Assad’s military gains and force him to negotiate peace seriously. Washington also finds itself onboard with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two Gulf states that funnel money, weapons and Salafist fighters into Syria. Last year the US Congress secretly approved funds for weapons deliveries to the so-called ‘moderate’ fighters which will continue until the end of 2014.  But the Obama administration, in view of its rapprochement with Iran, is unlikely to initiate another major war in the Middle East.

To conclude, the Syrian conflict is a multi-level conflict with multiple actors and varied interests involved. There is no easy political solution to it. An end to the conflict demands, at a minimum, participations by all parties from the national to the global levels and their readiness to make painful compromises. The bone of contention is the political future of Assad. America’s policy of regime change is unacceptable both to Russia and Iran while Assad’s survival means a diplomatic and military defeat for America and Saudi Arabia. This is what lies at the heart of the deadlock over Syria that keeps defying piecemeal efforts to resolve it. Alternatively, a future military victory, either by the rebels or the Assad government, remains the only solution to the Syrian conflict.

Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. He specializes in international relations theories, global political economy, international security studies, and politics and international relations of the Middle East.
1. BBC NEWS, “Syria Geneva II peace talks witness bitter exchanges”, 22 January 2014. Accessed at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25836827, 20 February 2014.
2. Reuters, “Syria adds opposition peace talks delegates to ‘terrorist list’”, 15 February 2014. Accessed at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/15/us-syria-crisis-blacklist-idUSBREA1E0QI20140215, 19 February 2014.
3. Al Jazeera, “Explaining the Geneva II peace talks on Syria”, 19 January 2014. Accessed at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/explaining-geneva-ii-peace-talks-syria-2014118142853937726.html, 20 February 2014. 
4. The Guardian, “UK and US warns Syrian opposition they must attend Geneva peace talks”, 13 January 2014. Accessed at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/13/us-uk-syrian-opposition-geneva-peace-talks, 19 February 2014. 
5. CNN, “What does Iran get for supporting al-Assad?”, 14 August 2012. Accessed at: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/08/world/syria-iran-analysis/, 21 February 2014.
6. The New York Times, “Interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran Collide, with the US in the Middle”, 17 March 2011. Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/18/world/18diplomacy.html?_r=0, 21 February 2014.
7. Reuters, “Saudi Arabia boosts Salafist rivals to al-Qaeda in Syria”, 01 October 2013. Accessed at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/01/us-syria-crisis-jihadists-insight-idUSBRE9900RO20131001, 22 February 2014.
8. The New York Times, “Risks of Syrian Intervention Limit Options for U.S.”, 21 August 2012. Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/22/world/middleeast/risks-of-syrian-intervention-limit-options-for-us.html?pagewanted=all, 22 February 2014.
9. Reuters, “Congress secretly approves U.S. weapons flow to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels”, 27 January 2014. Accessed at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/27/us-usa-syria-rebels-idUSBREA0Q1S320140127, 23 February 2014.  



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