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TALMIZ AHMAD | 31 MARCH, 2016

The Syrian Cauldron Sizzles in Uncertainty: Part 1


DUBAI: The photograph of three-year old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, lying drowned on a Turkish beach in early September last year, pulled the five year-old Syrian conflict out of its political and military trappings in a faraway land and brought it to world attention as a heart-rending tragedy. This conflict, now entering its sixth year, has seen the death of over 400,000 people, displacement of several millions, the destruction of almost all major Syrian cities, and the wanton despoiling of the world's rich heritage, Roman, Christian and Muslim, that has been the legacy of this territory that has so often been at the cross-roads of world history. Thousands of refugees have swarmed into European countries, severely straining their liberal values and creating openings for a right-wing backlash.

Background

The conflict in Syria began as low-key demonstrations demanding democratic reform in Damascus and Aleppo in late January 2011 as part of the "Arab Spring" uprisings that in a few weeks dramatically swept away the Arab leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, used disproportionate force to quell the demonstrations, killing several hundred agitators and injuring thousands. The torture and arrest of 15 boys for anti-government graffiti was a major factor in fomenting outrage against the authorities. Later attempts by the president to pacify his people failed, and in a few months a full-scale civil conflict was in place in Syria that continues with unabated ferocity to this day.

The conflict has obtained its longevity, resilience and destructiveness from the active involvement of regional powers to effect regime change and the increasing firepower resorted to by the Assad presidency to retain itself in power. While Turkey and Qatar from the outset backed Islamist militia with weaponry, funding and logistical support, Saudi Arabia initially supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a "secular" force made up of deserters from the national army. However, the feeble performance of the FSA in recruitment and battle encouraged the Kingdom to move toward supporting Islamic groups, most of them with a Salafi-jihadi orientation.

Saudi involvement in Syria and its insistence on regime change results from its sense of strategic vulnerability in the face of what it sees as increasing Iranian influence in West Asia, particularly after the "empowerment" of the Shia community in Iraq following the US-led assault and regime change in 2003. The scenario from its perspective deteriorated with the fall of its strategic partner Hosni Mubarak and the demand for reform in Bahrain, which brought the threat of political change from the Arab Spring to its very doorstep. The Kingdom viewed these developments as an "existential" threat. To challenge Iran, it made regime change in Syria a priority, believing that a new regime would be more amenable to its interests: it would snap Iran's strategic reach to the Mediterranean, bring a major country into the Arab mainstream, and end Iran links with the Hezbollah, thus liberating Lebanon from its pernicious influence.

As anti-government forces proliferated into several hundred militia, with several thousand heavily armed followers, Saudi Arabia later made attempts to consolidate groups sponsored by it into, first, the Jaish al Islam [Army of Islam] in 2014 and then the Jaish al Fatah [Army of Victory] in early 2015. The latter includes the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra [Victory Front], which entered the Syrian battle fields in early 2012 under the leadership of Abu Mohammed al Golani, and by the end of the year was already the most powerful fighting force in the country.

Al Nusra's successes led to its split from its parent group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in April 2013, announced the merger of the Iraqi and Syrian entities to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. Following the capture of Mosul and other territories in Iraq and Syria in mid-2014, al Baghdadi declared the setting up of the "Caliphate" of the Islamic State under his leadership in July 2014. Thus, over the last two years Syria has been the battle-ground for numerous Islamist militia and the ISIS fighting the Assad forces, backed by Iranian revolutionary guards and Hezbollah cadres from Lebanon. Pro-government forces steadily lost territory and, by mid-2015, faced the prospect of military defeat.

Russian intervention

The Assad regime was saved by the entry of Russian forces on its side in September 2015. Russian aircraft commenced the bombardment of all opposition forces, and provided effective armour to the Syrian army and valuable intelligence support through aerial surveillance. The tide of battle now turned in favour of the incumbent regime which began to take back some of the major towns it had lost earlier.

Just as Russia had dramatically entered the Syrian conflict, on 14 March its president surprised most observers by announcing that Russia, "after fulfilling the primary objectives" set before its armed forces, would "withdraw the main part of the Russian Aerospace Forces troops" from Syria from the next day. The Russian defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, set out the successes of the Russian forces thus:

* Russian aircraft had carried out 9000 sorties against opposition forces in the last six months;

* the terrorists' ability to trade in oil supplies had been effectively crippled with the destruction of 209 production facilities and 2000 trucks;

* terrorist elements had been cleared out of Latakia, the heartland of the Assad regime;

* major towns like Aleppo, Homs and Hama had largely been cleared of opposition forces;

* over 400 towns and villages had been re-taken, and 10,000 sq. km. of territory had been liberated from ISIS, about one-third of territory earlier controlled by it; and,

* over 2000 Russian nationals who had been part of terrorist groups had been eliminated.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Russian military intervention had fundamentally changed the ground situation and "helped create conditions for the start of the political process" in Syria. President Putin clarified that Russian forces would remain at the naval base at Tartous and the air base at Hmeymim. He said that the Russian announcement would give a "good signal" to the various contending parties in Syria to pursue the peace process, which would in time "significantly lift the level of trust" between them.

Commentators, caught by surprise, have offered a wide variety of explanations for the Putin announcement. A Putin critic in Russia described the initiative as "unprepared improvisation" which had failed in its principal mission to destroy ISIS. Another critic said that Putin had entered the Syrian war with "incredible frivolousness" and that there had been "extreme lack of seriousness and [even] capriciousness in the whole mission".

Most Russian comment, however, has been laudatory. The military journalist Pavel Felgenhauer saw the withdrawal as a "brilliant tactical move". He pointed out that, while Putin has gained considerable political mileage, militarily nothing had really changed on the ground: the fleet, anti-aircraft artillery, the armour, helicopters and the marines would remain in place; those few aircraft that had flown out could come back in three or four hours.

Implications of the Russian withdrawal

In assessing whether the Russian mission was successful or not we have to look at the principal interests of the president. Clearly, his main interest was to deliver a hammer blow to the ISIS and other opposition forces (collectively referred to as "terrorists" by the Assad regime), save the Assad presidency from externally sponsored regime change, and secure for the regime its core territory: this goes north from the Lebanese border to Qalamoun and Damascus, and then on to Homs and Hama; it also embraces the historic town of Aleppo and its surrounding areas. This has largely been achieved.

With regard to the fight against ISIS, certain serious blows have been struck and its image of invincibility has certainly been dented: the fall of Palmyra to the national army on 27 March, after heavy fighting that included Russian bombings after the withdrawal announcement, has boosted the Assad regime's morale and image. ISIS' supply links through Turkey have been snapped, and there are indications that Syrian forces may now move to liberate Deir Ez Zour and the Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. The distinguished Jordanian commentator, Urayb Al Rintawi has said that whoever wins the battle against ISIS "will have the upper hand and the final word" in Syria.

Thus, Putin has conveyed to the Russian people his ability to engage in a short, sharp military action to achieve national interests and then his statesmanship in withdrawing quickly so that his forces are not bogged down in an Afghanistan-like situation.

On the international level, it has conveyed to the West Russia's ability to defend its crucial strategic interests, and at the same time its constructive and moderate approach to regional challenges; in short, the president wants the US to engage with him seriously and to discuss how major international issues can be effectively addressed. Here again, Putin seems to have been successful as far as Syria is concerned: over the last month, Moscow has hosted several high-level US visitors, including the CIA director and the secretary of state, to discuss the peace process in Syria.

As a Russian observer Vladimir Frolov has said, Russia seems to have obtained "geopolitical parity" with the US on international issues, as was the case during the days of the Soviet Union. He suggests that this could become a "template for working out new rules of the game ... in other regions" such as Ukraine.

The Syrian peace process

However, after having gained militarily and strategically, Putin’s principal interest now is in bringing peace to the country so that an effective international coalition can be set up against ISIS. With the withdrawal announcement, Putin has made clear that the Russian intervention was time-bound and that the Assad regime now had to work with its opponents on the peace process.

To this end, the positive news from Syria has been that the "cessation of hostilities", sponsored by the US and Russia and accepted by the various parties in Syria, government and opposition, at Munich on 27 February, has held, and preparations are being made to re-convene the Geneva III conference on 11 April. [The ceasefire does not apply to operations against Jabhat Nusra, ISIS and other "terrorist" groups.]

However, the political outlook in Syria remains shrouded in considerable uncertainty. The Syrian president and his spokespersons continue to uphold their position of no compromise with the opposition and no compromise in regard to regaining all the lost territories. The Russian position appears more nuanced. On 24 March, Secretary of State John Kerry held separate four-hour meetings in Moscow with foreign minister Lavrov and Putin, and then announced that the focus of the next steps in the Syrian peace process would be " the details of the political transition"; towards this end, by August, a political framework would have to be agreed to by the contending parties in Syria and a new constitution promulgated.

Lavrov concurred that the priority was to create a "transitory governing body [in Syria] with all the fullness of the executive power". He added that "pressure on all sides must be increased" on all participants in the process. The Russians have made it clear that their commitment to the continuation of President Assad in office is not open-ended and could be reviewed. Lavrov has also made references to the "legitimate armed opposition" in Syria and has hosted in Moscow delegations from the FSA and the Syrian Kurds.

The remarks of the Russian foreign office spokesperson after the Kerry meeting are quite interesting:" We are supporting not Assad [himself]. Do not forget: he has not been the best friend of ours, but he has been the friend of the West. We have backed the maintenance of the legitimate government." Here the Russian spokesperson seems to be drawing a distinction between Assad personally and a "legitimate" government; she has then reiterated the Russian position of upholding the latter against being toppled by external elements, while keeping open the possibility of the replacement of Assad personally if the political process so demands it.

Separately, in March, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Stefan de Mistura, had two weeks of discussions with the Syrian government and opposition representatives and prepared twelve points on which there was agreement. These include a unified national army which would include opposition militants who accept the peace process and the new constitution. After these talks, the government negotiator described them as "positive" for having broken the diplomatic impasse, while the opposition said that they had "laid the basis for substantive talks".

However, there are deep differences on important issues. Thus, the Syrian government sees the opposition delegation, the Higher Negotiation Council led by Mohammed Alloush from the Jaish al Islam, as a Saudi-sponsored puppet. Both sides disagree on the composition of the transitional body that will run government for 18 months, with the opposition rejecting any role for Assad in it; they in fact call for his trial and that of a thousand of his supporters for war crimes. The opposition, under Turkish pressure, also reject the inclusion of the Syrian Kurds in the peace discussions, calling them followers of the Assad regime, though their participation is backed by both the US and Russia. The opposition has also called for the release of political detainees, including 9000 women, and an immediate end to the "starvation sieges" by the Assad forces of several towns under opposition control.

There is also considerable uncertainty about the fate of the principal militia in the peace process. Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra remains on the global list of terrorist organizations as is the Islamist group, Ahrar Al Sham. Both are active in the battles against Assad and will claim if not a lead role, certainly an influential position, in any political settlement that emerges at Geneva.

Similarly, whatever may be the Turkish position, the Syrian Kurds represented by the People's Protection Unit [YPG], have fought well against ISIS, evicting the latter from a number of towns and villages at the Turkish border, with air support from the US and Russia. Not waiting for international sanction, on 17 March, the Syrian Kurds announced a “federal system” in the region controlled by them at the Turkish border, consisting of three enclaves: Afrin, Kobane and Jazeera, declaring their intention to obtain full autonomy, on the model of Iraqi Kurdistan, in a few years. This move has been rejected by both the Assad government and the opposition.

However, the capture of Palmyra may already be yielding positive results for the Assad regime: its foreign minister, Walid Muallem, was invited to Algeria on an official visit at the end of March, signalling that political winds might be shifting in favour of the beleaguered Assad regime.

[The author is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.]

(Read Part Two here)

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