• Ola Rifai

The illusion of a political solution in Syria

Paradoxically, all parties engaged in the Syrian war do not miss an opportunity to stress their determination for a political solution to end the almost 6 year-old conflict. Alas, these statements are very far from being realistic. Indeed, another chapter of the crisis, a more violent one, is looming on the horizon.

The end of 2016 was marked by drastic militarily and geopolitical fluctuations in the Syrian conflict as alliances shifted, shaking the power balance on the ground and forcing new rules of the game. Among which, the fall of Aleppo and the Russian/Turkish rapprochement were the most remarkable. Internationally speaking, the right wing is rising at the sake of a, seemingly, demising liberal world in which populist leaders are capitalizing on fear and economic resentment.

Interestingly, the early months of 2017 mirror these changes. In late January the newly allied players Russia and Turkey sponsored peace talks between the Syrian regime and key rebel leaders in Astana; Kazakhstan. Although Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan succeeded in bringing the bitter foes face to face for the first time at a negotiation table, the talks were uncultivable. They further signified the regional and international chaotic context of this crisis, and the ambiguous strategies of all actors vis-à-vis the Syrian drama. In this light, a fourth round of Geneva peace talks (sponsored by the UN) is scheduled on 23 February. Yet, it is deemed to be a failure due to the deep divisions among the Great Powers and also to the widening gaps between the allies themselves.

The Russians and the Iranians do not seem to be on the same page as regards Assad’s fate. Iran – whose national security is attached to the very existence of Mr. Assad - insists that any political solution should include Assad at the helm of the state. i.e. it believes that the pre-2011 status can be retained.

On the other hand, the opposition, as it has always been, is fractured and divided. Political opposition is marginalized and manipulated by patrons while the armed one is embroiled into an intra fight and struggle for power; being trapped amidst the bombardment of Salafi Jihadi militias and the regime forces. European countries, enmeshed in the refugee crisis, are reluctant to act solely and are waiting for indicators from the new US administration. While Gulf States; namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which played vital roles in the outset of the crisis, are seemingly being drawn to the backlines.

Paralleling the above, an implicit status quo between actors on the ground is taking place as informal zones of influences are being established. Indeed, regardless of the various violations of ceasefire, each party seems to consolidate its power over a particular foothold; henceforth dividing Syria’s territories into influence zones. Such zones would hinder any process of state-building in a post-war Syria. Undoubtedly, the vague strategies of regional and international players and the de facto quasi states that are crafted within these zones of influence would paralyse any political solution. Therefore, a new reality should be established on the ground to advance political talks; therefore, enforcing No-Fly Zones and the fighting against ISIS are key elements of such a reality. Supported by NATO and international troops on the ground, No-Fly Zones would impose a serious ceasefire allowing internal refugees to go back to their homes and stopping the Syrian exodus from pouring into Europe. Most importantly, No-Fly Zones would set the necessary environment for governance.

On the other hand, supporting rebels in the fight against ISIS plays a crucial role in drawing a road map for the conflict. The United States is supporting Kurdish forces to fight ISIS in the northeast of Syria while Turkey is supporting some militias (consisting mainly of Arab Sunni fighters) to oust ISIS from the city of Al-Bab (northeast Aleppo), while other Salafi militias (such as Jaish al-Islam) are embarking on a vehement struggle against ISIS in Idlib without any international or regional backing. Engaging such Salafi militias (that were internationally considered as moderate, and that took part in recent political talks) in this fight would play a key role in deradicalising Sunni fighters and easing the process of incorporating the various militias into a national army.

Hence instead of supporting informal zones of influence that would prolong the conflict and create fragile states within the state; Great Powers should design policies that aim at state-building; if they are genuine in their quest for a political solution. The truth of the matter is that the tragedy of Syrians is the dark side of Obama’s legacy; the hesitant policies by his administration created a vacuum that was filled with violence instead of a political solution. Although it is still unclear how the new US administration is planning to tackle the Syrian War, there is no doubt that the role America choses to play would be a game changer; it would either draw the closing chapter of this ferocious conflict or it would open another bloody one. Meanwhile, only Syrians are paying the heaviest price.


The views & information contained in these posts are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as in any way representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


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