The Syrian Deal: Is the End in Sight?

In the last few days a deal has been in the making that will effectively end the Syrian civil war and open up a new military alliance against the Islamic State (IS). The deal will look effectively like what I regarded to be the best case scenario in 2013: the Assad government will recognise some of the opposition most notably the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), but also hopefully the National Coordination Committee for Democracy Change (NCB). They will call for snap elections, which will include the participation of this opposition and will predictably see their participation in government. In exchange, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – as weak as it is – will stop fighting the Syrian National Army and join them in the war against IS. But what is far more important is that this will allow for the formation of an American-Russian-Syrian-Iranian coalition against IS. The question of course is whether such a deal will be acceptable to all parties, especially the Americans. The Americans, I am worried, will continue to scuttle the deal with their delusions that the FSA will somehow become a plausible victor in the war.

Putin has made it known that Assad has agreed in principle to snap elections, which would allow some of the opposition to participate. Furthermore, the SNC has allowed it to slip that the Russian government is not wedded to an Assad government, which suggests that they would be open to de-Baathification, but would not necessarily require Assad to abdicate his position immediately. This deal has been the result of a particular configuration of the balance of forces, which has matured in the last few years. In the last few weeks the Russian government has had to pledge more military aid and significantly better weaponry, including Russian-manned military aircraft, to the Assad government, because of serious weaknesses of the regime and the army in light of losses against the Islamic Front-Al-Nusra Front offensive, but more significantly IS. Indeed, the Russian government intends to prop up its ally in the region against a very plausible IS victory. The introduction of Russian military aircraft however, has concerned the American government because the likelihood of the proxy war between itself and the Russian government mistakenly becoming an open confrontation will effectively increase because of the presence of American aircraft in the same areas that the Russians want to deploy their jets. Without any effective coordination between their respective airforces, the chance an American aircraft may attack a Russian aircraft is incredibly high. This has of course has caused great alarm to the Americans, and is the immediate cause for the latest round of diplomacy between the Americans and Russians in regard to the Syrian civil war.

The military balance of forces in Syria. Red is government, Green is rebels, including FSA and Islamic Front. Yellow is Kurds and Dark Grey is IS. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki//Syrician_Civil_War#/edia/File”Syrian_civil_war.png

The FSA’s failure to successfully carry out its Southern campaign has shown that it is in the main a spent force. The SNC’s apparent eagerness for such a deal to go through itself reflects a recognition on their own part that they have largely become an inconsequential actor in the on-going conflict. The only forces making any ground against the Syrian government has been the incredibly limited successes of the Islamic Front and the al-Nusra Front, and the far more significant military victories by IS. This has been compounded by the refugee crisis in Europe, which has seen 100,000s of Syrian refugees trying to find new homes in Western Europe. I cannot but believe that the EU countries are similarly putting pressure on the US to accept this latest round of Russian diplomacy, especially since everyone admits that the refugee crisis cannot even begin to be solved without an immediate end to the hostilities in Syria. Furthermore, the American government’s nuclear deal with the Iranian government has removed a large political obstacle to such a coalition. In effect, this conjuncture and the balance of forces has created the necessary conditions for what effectively would be a ‘national unity’ government in Syria and an international anti-IS military alliance.

Admittedly there are a number of uncertain factors. First, it is unclear how the Saudi and Qatari backed jihadist militias could be incorporated into this process as it is unlikely that the Syrian or the Russian government would agree to their presence, especially given their professed goals of forming an Islamic fascist State. The limited success of the non-IS jihadist militias in the Idlib province means that they have a small area of control, but it is unlikely that they will be able to survive an effective pincer movement between the Syrian National Army from the South and IS from the East. Indeed, as numerous IS defectors have pointed out, the IS regard other Islamist jihadist forces to be their primary enemies in any given region. Simultaneously however, it is unlikely that the Saudi and Qatar royal families are going to allow for any deal, which would see their own proxies having no place in such a government i.e. they likely will refuse coming out of the war completely empty-handed. Although perhaps a solution would be the formation of a less radicalised Islamic party that would be allowed to engage in the democratic process and would the accompanied by the defunding of the jihadist militias.

The second complexity is the mechanism through which the opposition parties would be allowed in government. This mechanism would have to be reflective of the relatively weak position of the opposition forces, but simultaneously offer enough in the way of de-Baathification that would entice the Americans and the SNC to participate. Perhaps this would see the adoption of the NCB’s proposal at the Cairo conference earlier this year. At some point there will have to be de-Baathification, but I think that is going to be an incredibly torturous process and it is unclear how even these proposed snap elections will go ahead is unknown, especially in light of the difficulties of such reconciliation in Iraq.

The third unknown variable is how the Kurdish organisations and regions will fit into this deal given that they have enjoyed relative political and territorial autonomy for the last four years, and they are unlikely to give that up. It is however possible that a Kurdish party would be included in such a government, but with an understanding that the Kurdish regions will remain de facto autonomous. Indeed, it would be incredibly difficult, given the IS threat, for the Assad government to pour a lot of resources into retaking Kurdish regions in any short-term timeframe.

It is angering to think that this conjuncture was already principally in place two years ago and that if the different forces had just accepted it they would have possibly spared hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of refugees. All that has happened in the interim years is that the American, Qatari, Saudi, Russian and Assad governments have arrived at the same stalemate that they had two years ago, and has seen them unable to achieve their particular goals in the region, whilst causing indescribable harm to millions of Syrians and creating the conditions that gave rise to IS. The Syrian people have not only had to suffer misery and death, but in the context of the resulting humanitarian crisis inside the country and the refugee camps across the region and Europe cannot speak of achieving any kind of any meaningful self-determination. The Syrian people have lost everything. Even worse, if this deal does come to pass, it is still not the end of it. The Syrian civil war per se will be over, but the war against IS will only heighten. There will be more death and more misery. The dream of a Syria for Syrians who can enjoy full self-determination seems further away than ever.

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