By Ranjit Gupta*
Several initiatives have been taken to try to end the war in Syria. The first was by the Arab League, then Geneva I and Geneva II by Russia and other countries, and finally, the Vienna Process, where even a calendar of steps for bringing peace to Syria was laid out. In February 2016, followed by intensive negotiations between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the US, Russia and 19 other countries met in Munich and an agreement for a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria’s civil war was announced. This agreement exempts the war against the Islamic State (IS/Daesh) and Jabhat al Nusra. Therefore, ostensibly, the wars against these two groups are continuing.
In many theatres of the multiple wars in Syria, Daesh and Jabhat al Nusra are present cheek by jowl with other Islamist groups and regime forces; and therefore, attacking the former two, permitted under this agreement, could and has led to attacks against other groups covered by the ceasefire agreement. This has led to charges of violations, particularly against the regime, Iran and Russia; and this combined with several other loopholes and serious shortcomings make this agreement unenforceable. Therefore, this ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement reflects nothing more than well-intentioned desires and despite the welcome lull in the fighting, this is emphatically not a prelude to any longer term halt to fighting or any substantive step towards a settlement.
Furthermore, this agreement does not remotely address the exceedingly complex underlying dynamics of ground realities in Syria at all.
Multiple wars have been simultaneously raging in Syria for some years now. The original war between the Syrian protestors and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime; the war by over 1000 jihadi groups actively supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Assad regime; the war between Daesh and the Assad regime; the war between Daesh and all the other Islamist groups, including in particular Jabhat al Nusra; the war between the Kurds and Daesh; and the aerial war between a number of countries and Daesh. In these processes, five foreign countries – Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US – have become rather deeply involved in Syria, militarily. The only aspect all of them agree on is on defeating Daesh. However, the top priorities of each are different and in several cases mutually contradictory.
Amongst these countries, the highest military priority of the US and its Western allies is defeating Daesh. The Kurds are their strongest and most successful allies in the war on the ground against Daesh, both in Iraq and in Syria. However, Turkey’s immediate top priority is the destruction of the Syrian Kurds’ power potential and the next priority is the removal of Assad. Ankara does not allow the Kurds to be part of any peace negotiations. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been publicly criticising the US with increasing vehemence, challenging it to choose between its NATO ally Turkey or what it calls the Kurdish ‘terrorists’. For Saudi Arabia, the highest priority is Assad’s removal – it continues to publicly insist that Assad has to stand down at the beginning of any transition process.
Riyadh also insists on determining the composition of the negotiating team of the “opposition” to Assad. There does not appear to be any let up in the Qatari, Saudi and Turkish support for different jihadist groups fighting in Syria, and supply of arms and funds to them continues. Iran is probably the most committed to Assad’s continuance in power over all of Syria. It has and continues to contribute significantly towards efforts to defeating Daesh in Iraq. Russia’s highest priority is to ensure that the jihadist groups fighting Assad, particularly those supported by Turkey, in the western third of the country are comprehensively defeated to ensure Assad’s continued control of this vital part of Syria, at least until transition agreements can be agreed to. In fact, in what should be considered an encouraging factor, Russia publicly chided Assad when he announced that he intends to regain control of the whole of Syria.
Day by day, Russia’s intervention is shifting the advantage in Assad’s favour, both diplomatically and militarily. Assad can no longer be defeated militarily and if he cannot be defeated on the battlefield, there is no way that he can be removed in a conference room.
For any peace process to have any realistic chance of success, it must be fully in accord with substantive ground realities. It is difficult enough for a peace process to be successful when there are only two antagonists. No peace process can possibly succeed when it involves the participation of such a large number of entities; more non-state than state actors, many of whom are engaged in a life and death struggle against others; and many entities imposing impossible-to-meet preconditions to even participate. Such an approach cannot possibly achieve positive results and should be abandoned.
A greatly intensified war against the IS with the US and Western countries acting in coordination with Russia should become the top priority. It is entirely possible that this could cause a temporary partition of Syria into zones under the control of different authorities. In fact, a review of the Sykes-Picot arrangements may be the only way for long-term stability in West Asia. The simultaneous holding of intense and continuous negotiations, strictly away from media attention, initially between empowered sherpas of the P5, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey potentially provides the most workable hope to even attempt to get out of the Syrian quagmire. The involvement of non-state groups, who are essentially proxies of states, only complicates negotiations.
Modalities of a political transition process in Syria should also be part of these discussions. While it may be politically correct to say that any peace process must be Syrian-owned and Syrian-led, the reality is that such a process simply cannot be brought about.
* Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS, former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman, and former Member, National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), India