• Ola Rifai - University of St Andrews

The Syrian crisis, a last chance?

The Syrian drama has witnessed some significant developments during the last couple of months, which have further complicated the scene, but remarkably, they may also draw an end for the ongoing conflict. On September 30th, Russia launched an air campaign in Syria with the declared mission of eliminating ISIS, and the undeclared aim of boosting the deteriorated Asad forces, which had lost control over 80% of the Syrian territories. Thus Putin feared a radical shift in the balance of power on the ground, that in turn would threaten Russia’s interests. More importantly, the Russians sought to emphasise their role as a vital player in the present and future Syria in the eyes of all actors involved, including the Asad regime and Iran. Contrary to the argument that Russian military intervention constitutes a trap that will plunge it in a ‘Syrian quagmire’, Russia’s calculated adventure over the Syrian sky seems, until now, to have worked on Russian terms and might actually pave the way to end the conflict rather than escalate it. Putin is aware that he lacks allies in the Middle East who would help him enforce a political settlement on the ground, and he is also aware that a military solution alone cannot ultimately solve the crisis. Thus, he needs the West as much as the West needs him to put pressure on the Asad regime.

Despite statements by Western leaders condemning the Russian air campaign, channels between the West and Russia were opened allowing the latter to exit its isolation and, to some extent admitting its role as a broker. In this light, two weeks after the start of Russia’s operation in Syria, president Bashar Asad embarked on his first visit out of the country since 2011, it was to Moscow to ‘thank Russia’ for its help. In reality, the visit was far from being framed as a formal one since the president flew in a Russian airplane secured by Sukhoi jets and not accompanied by any of his minsters. He thanked Putin in front of cameras without the presence of the Syrian flag behind him, yet a huge Russian flag was standing behind Putin. Therefore, one cannot dub such visit as a counterpart’s meeting. Unlike its relations with Iran, Syria’s relations with Russia are neither based on personal ties nor on ideological ones. For Iran, Asad’s existence is linked to the very survival of its role in the Middle East, a role which both; Khomeini and Hafez Asad had constructed cautiously throughout decades. For Russia, the relations with Asad junior experienced many chilly stages in the early 2000s and did not improve until 2005, when the international isolation on Syria forced Asad to pay his first visit ever to Moscow. Therefore, Russian officials always reiterate that they do not insist president Asad should stay in office. And moreover, they put emphasis on the importance of a political settlement and power transition even to the Syrian president himself.

On October 30th, a Russian airplane crashed over the Sinai Peninsula killing the 224 passengers on board, ISIS claimed responsibility. Exactly one month after the intervention started, this was the first devastating consequence of the Russian military intervention in Syria, which on the one hand, seems to enhance Putin’s decision in the local and international arena since it portrays Russia as a new victim of ISIS. On the other hand, it encourages Russia to recalculate the risks of its campaign and to reassess an exit strategy. Some two weeks after the Russian airplane crash an unprecedented terror attack hit the French capital, leaving 130 dead, ISIS claimed responsibility.

Unsurprisingly, Putin sought to turn the Paris attack to his advantage, and appears to have succeeded; the West now is ready to cooperate with Russia on military and political levels. As analysts have argued since the beginning of the crisis, the outcomes of the Syrian war would go far beyond borders and also beyond control. The refugee crisis, ISIS and the rapid reproduction of extremism are yet some of these outcomes that have reached Western shores. This triggered the world great powers to make some compromises to formulate an end to the conflict. On November 14, vital players on the Syrian theatre including the U.S, Russia, and Iran concluded an ambitious plan in Vienna to end the war, which calls for the start of negotiations between the regime and its opponents, the establishment of an “inclusive and non-sectarian” transitional government, and finally the launch of a U.N supervised election, all to be done in a timeframe of two years. Regardless how applicable these stages are, and despite the vague yet crucial issues of Asad’s fate and the disarmament of the various militias, which delegations in Vienna did not venture to address, one can consider such a meeting as a real chance for pushing for a political process. What makes this ‘chance’ different from the former ones is that both Russia and Iran have secured their seats as partners, rather than isolated foes. Besides, the broker’s role, which Russia seeks to play in pursuit of global power, might facilitate the process. More importantly, the involvement of some Islamist armed groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jish al-Islam in the negotiations between the regime and opposition groups would make any political settlement more realistic, as they both enjoy popularity among a wide range of anti-Asad Syrians, and also they recruit some 80,000 fighters on the ground. In the same light, what could make this chance a ‘real’ one is that it should be imposed by the great powers, and of course should be sustained by the Syrians themselves. Procedures like enforcing a no fly-zone (that does not include the ISIS areas) and buffer-zones inside Syria, the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of non-Syrian militias, namely; Hezbollah would set the environment for a political deal and boost possibilities of its success.

Rationally speaking, the fate of the Syrian crisis is now in the hands of various powers and they all should be represented at the negotiation table to accomplish credible outcomes. International and regional powers are now aware that the crisis is sweeping across the borders and is out of their control, therefore they are alarmed and seem to be more serious to articulate a settlement. Motivated by realpolitik ends rather than the so-called Western liberal values, the 4 year-old humanitarian catastrophe alongside the collapse of the state and society and the use of all kinds of war crimes including chemical weapons were insufficient for the world great powers to be alarmed. Had they intervened (politically and military) earlier, they would have saved lives and states. Yet, this seems to be the last chance for the International Community to solve the conflict before a bloody quagmire floods the globe.



© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies