[Edited and published on Al Araby Al Jadeed]
The Syrian Civil War, raging for over four year, has seen increasing gains from rebel forces in the last month. This curbs any disillusionment that Assad was perhaps winning; but the opposition is not winning either. The International
Crisis Group (ICG) argue, as it stands, there is no breaking the status quo because each side is too invested in its own agenda and unable to quash the rising force that belongs to neither of them – jihadists.
Their respective state backers can help to change the current impasse but the ICG argue that a new policy framework is needed.
The current zero-sum reality
The regime control western Syria; the rebels have made serious gains in the south while the Islamic State (IS) have strongholds in central Syria and al-Nusra front are in northern Syria, eliminating US backed factions from Idlib and
Aleppo. US airstrikes drove IS from Kurdish areas east of Aleppo but haven’t weakened its hold in the east or elsewhere.
The continuation of these battles is unsustainable. The regime’s military power is flailing, relying heavily on foreign fighters like Hizb’Allah and Iranian Shiite militias. Islamist factions joining al-Nusra have done so to help
topple the regime but reject their transnational agenda. The main opposition groups cannot continue without substantial foreign backing. As Xanthe Ackerman reported in Vice News, the Syrian Interim Government is essentially broke.
The conflict has been horrible, encompassing a grocery list of human rights violations. Human Rights Watch has cited the intensification of indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas, the use of prohibited weapons including rape, arbitrary
detention, disappearances, torture and the use of child soldiers in 2014 alone. The humanitarian fallout is twelvefold since the beginning of the conflict (UNOCHA 2015 Strategic Response plan) and has led to gargantuan levels of displacement, an education crisis, the breakdown of public services and epidemics.
The West could not now tolerate an Assad regime but they also wish to minimise involvement. All states, have placed the elimination of the Islamic State (IS) as most urgent on their agenda with almost tunnel vision, which is wrong:
radicalisation that makes IS strong is a product of everything unaddressed: oppression of the regime, fractured opposition and combined militias.
The main regional players: Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, view the war in terms of military strength and territorial control. Moscow and Tehran happily ‘underwrite’ the regime but make no diplomatic attempts, while
support for the opposition is tinged with fear of establishing links between themselves and jihadist elements (moderate jihadist elements used as their proxies).
Both situations are unsustainable. Iran and Russia cannot afford – financially or reputationally – to carry on funding the regime this way and the opposition need more financing, which the US can provide. More alignment between the
state backers will strengthen the opposition.
In both cases, no side is making enough gains to say they are winning this war, taking Syria further into destabilisation.
While both sides are trying to attain outright wins, the allies can influence a more reasonable solution.
Each needs to think about their bottom lines and be willing to make concessions. The ICG also state that Assad cannot rule in a post war Syria if peace is to last and that Iran is an undeniable presence in the Levant.
The opposition supporters need to align under two objectives: to support non-ideological factions and incentivise Islamist factions willing to distance themselves from transnational groups like al-Nusra; and to enable the mainstream
opposition to make ground against the regime.
Therefore, the US needs a much stronger policy, particularly if they are training the moderate factions. They can no longer tolerate indiscriminate attacks by the regime as they have in the past and should indicate that targeting
their funded forces will be met with proportional force. They should also have very clear terms to negotiating peace, including reform, security and a pluralistic society. Europe on their part needs to ramp up humanitarian efforts and alleviate the various crises affecting the country, better co-ordinating aid it does provide.
Iran does not need to support the regime if it can still get links to Hizb’Allah and is not threatened by an alternative power in Syria. Russia has more to gain from supporting a resolution than its current role. Turkey is crucial
in re-balancing the dynamics inside the rebel forces and their key concerns should be taken into account: secure borders, return of refugees, leaving the Kurdistan areas as they are and inclusiveness into a pluralistic society.
Reaching a peaceful resolution
If the bottom lines have been established, the next obstacle is establishing the path to peace. The third UN envoy, Stefan de Mistura must succeed where others failed and encourage engagement.
His strategy to establish ‘freeze zones’ (essentially a ceasefire) has so far failed. In Feburary, his attempt in Aleppo was rejected by the opposition as they felt Mistura was biased towards the regime and that he should be working
towards a permanent resolution, as reported by Al Araby al Jadeed earlier this year.
The ICG maintain that freezes could work; as long as they did not require surrender in the minds of each party, re-allocation of resources did not ensue and they are not considered substitution to real resolution.
Mistura needs to work harder to facilitate this. It will require background diplomacy, Iranian buy-in and Western tactical co-operation.